Renewed Relevance for the Forgotten War Memoir Written By the Father of NYC Ballet

In 1946, Lincoln Kirstein co-founded the New York City Ballet. However, lesser known then his contributions to the performing arts is his poetic memoir published in 1964 about serving in the US Army during the Second World War. Rhymes of a PFC is a tragically long-out-of-print collection of prose dealing with the stresses of combat, sexuality in the army, and existentialism under the constant threat of death. Now that we are the homefront of a biological struggle happening worldwide, Kirstein’s poems gain renewed relevance for their power and solidarity.

The book is split into sections reflecting the different theaters of war. Each section pays tribute to quiet moments so often left out of newsreels and documentaries. Instead of bullets and shrapnel, Kirstein chronicles the emotional struggles going on behind closed doors–battles not just with the enemy, but between allies and individuals. The complex and surprising nature of these issues can be seen in Kirstein’s reflection of the dynamic between American and British soldiers in regard to married women, which leaves the reader as burned-out as the cuckolded British Tommy. “Bert grasps the situation–/ After five long years,/ Young Bertie in a Yankee’s arms–/ And bursts into tears.// Bert will not try to kill him/ As the corporal thinks he might:/ He’s had his fill of fighting;/ He wants no fight” (50-51).

However, not all of the poems display animosity. There are several that reflect on the collective misery and desire for comfort among soldiers. Many of these sections have homosexual undertones that add a unique character to Kirstein’s poetic voice. In the poem, “Junior,” Kirstein chronicles the quiet tension of a transatlantic crossing. “Then Junior, through our nightmare, came stalking quick but dead;/ As I absorbed his fright from him, the mist on his shaved head/ Stood out like sweat. His two wild paws in helpless animal fright/ Trapped me in the clamp of love to nurse him through this night.// He was in peril. So was I. Be with us to the end/ Where every selfish soldier is rationed half a friend” (61).

Kristein writes wonderfully clever prose that outlines the entire conflict in Europe. The dreamlike quality of episodic poetic rhyme contrasts with visions of Atlantic Convoys, Uboats, and occupied Europe in the darkest days of the conflict. Now, in the biological world war against Covid-19, each of us is a soldier cooped up in a perpetual battle against infection. I’m sure many Americans are feeling the emotional strain of this war, and the economic strain of a wartime economy. In this regard, Kirstein’s recollection of quiet warfare is particularly enchanting and relevant.

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https://www.amazon.com/Rhymes-More-PFC-Lincoln-Kirstein/dp/B000I8UDGU

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Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker: A Literary Take of the Legend and Language of the Apocalypse

In 1980, Pennsylvania-born writer Russell Hoban was living in London when he wrote his fourth novel, Riddley Walker. The book is a piece of science fiction which takes place in the south-east of England, several millennia after a mysterious apocalyptic event. As the news of today paints a picture that looks increasingly like something out of one of these pieces of pessimistic fiction, reading books like Hoban’s can be oddly relaxing, as we find delight in beautiful passages of a bleak world, one rich with legend and language.

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The first page of Riddley Walker confronts the reader with the fact that the book isn’t written in English, or at least, not an English that we today recognize. The narrative is told from the first-person perspective of the titular character, Riddley. Hobban wrote the book as if a man living millennia after the end of the world was speaking to the reader in his native dialect. To accomplish this, Hobban created a changed and degraded version of English. We experience firsthand how Riddley and his people have reinterpreted lost signs and signifiers. The end of the world legend is called “the Eusa story,” referring to the EU and USA. The light of what is presumably a nuclear blast has been personified in stories as “the Littl Shyning Man.” Canterbury has become Cambry, and the once-popular Punch and Judy puppet show is now a form of public announcement, which tells the story of the world to its people and warns about the dangers of technology.

Books like Riddley Walker remind us of the creative powers of literature to imagine a more colorful vision of a dark future. The concept of apocalypse in Riddley Walker is not just dangerous and strange in a Hobbesian sense, but also wonderfully literary. For us as readers experiencing the growing nihilism as a result of climate change and the invisible dangers of the Coronavirus, consider reading this forgotten classic of British-American literature. According to Hoban, the apocalypse is, after all, literary. 

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Mechanical Keyboards: The Best of Both Worlds

In the last ten years, the manual typewriter has made an astounding comeback. Writers across the globe have returned to the analogue. Like the Moleskine notebook or the fountain pen, today’s writers seek antiquated tools for a sense of nostalgia and inspiration. However, completely forgoing modern conveniences such as spell check, email, and word processing is a hard sell. For those seeking something old that still has the tools we desire, there exists another option: the mechanical computer keyboard.

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Mechanical keyboards were the first computer input devices before the invention of the mouse, but they fell out of fashion with manufacturers because of high costs. Cheaper to manufacture, the spongey feeling rubber dome membrane keyboards replaced them in the 90s. By contrast, mechanical keyboards use switches and springs with distinct stages of actuation, producing a satisfying “click” with each keystroke. 

The most common mechanical keyboard design is the German Cherry MX, which uses downward motion against a spring to push a plunger piece and complete the circuit. The plunger “snaps” downward when enough pressure is applied, making the sound. The other equally revered, but much less common, design is the “buckling spring.” These have a keycap resting on a spring, which buckles against the walls of the stem when pressed and rocks a “hammer” plate to complete the circuit. IBM invented and popularized this design on their 1984 “Model M keyboard,” which today is regarded as the ultimate typist’s keyboard for its quality and feel. Only one small company in Kentucky called “Unicomp,” made up of former IBM employees, carries on the buckling spring legacy.

The next time your MacBook keyboard fails, and you yearn for something analogue but cannot completely forego modern computer conveniences, consider a mechanical keyboard of 1980s design. It can do for you what the manual typewriter has done and continues to do for writers like David McCullough, John Mayer, and P. J. O’Rourke.  A mechanical keyboard will allow you to commune with the past and an analogue experience, while still allowing you to get real work done in a modern workflow.

 

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Sweat at the Huntington Theatre

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Huntingtontheatre.org

Lynn Nottage first began conceptualizing her award-winning play Sweat when she conducted a series of interviews in Reading, Pennsylvania in 2011. Her time in this town inspired the play’s small, poverty-ridden, American town setting. The play centers around a group of childhood friends and their sons, who are all co-workers at a factory that has slowly begun to shut down. Sweat shifts between 2000 and 2008 to show how the town and its residents evolve over the decade. It touches on topics such as racial tension, immigration, the opioid epidemic, neo-Nazis, American manufacturing, and toxic masculinity. The play led Nottage to win a Pulitzer Prize and be nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play.

A new production of Sweat is playing at The Huntington Theatre in Boston, MA. The Huntington is one of Boston’s two major regional theaters (along with the American Repertory Theatre), and has sent numerous shows to Broadway over the years. Sweat brought the same level of high-production quality one should expect from The Huntington. 

With its realistic set and amazing cast, the audience is able to connect with the story and empathize with its complex characters. Performances delivered by Tyla Abercrumbie and Brandon G. Green allow Nottage’s script to truly shine. It is an undeniably solid production of a well-written show that tackles some of the most pressing issues facing our country today.

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Soviet Literature in the Post-Soviet World: The Writing of Chinghiz Aitmatov

              To any student of classic Russian literature, it often feels as though Russian literary canon stopped after the transition to the Soviet era. However, there are many great Soviet literary works which exist in undeserved obscurity. Chingiz Aitmatov’s The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years is just as important as Western novels, like Orwell’s 1984, in reflecting the contemporary political and social climate while also illuminating surprising insights on today’s world.

           Aitmatov’s story is set at a railway junction on the steppe in Kazakhstan. Like a Soviet As I Lay Dying, the plot is centered around a journey for a burial. The story is told from the perspective of a railway worker named Burannyi Yedigei, who is remembering his life with his late friend Kazangap, while he walks with the funeral procession to an ancient desert cemetery. He remembers the Soviet period and the clashes between agents of the regime and the local politics of the region. These external forces intertwine with his own personal struggle of love and friendship on the crucible of the steppe. Yedigei’s narrative is intercut with scenes from a jointly run space station between the Soviets and the USA, which has been contacted by beings from another galaxy. Rockets launch to investigate from a site not far from Yedigei’s junction, and the rockets’ fires are visible in the sky.  

           The story includes elements of historical fiction, science fiction, and ancient Kazak legend. The broad temporal and thematic expanse reflects the diversity of the Soviet Union east of Moscow, as well as the political climate and its effects far from Western Europe. Aitmatov is prophetic in his writing regarding political authoritarianism, isolationism, and cultural memory regarding today’s relations between the East and the West.200px-ChingizAitmatov_TheDayLastsMoreThanAHundredYears

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Day_Lasts_More_Than_a_Hundred_Years

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Writers Resists’ Call to Action

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writersresist2020.org

“The alarm, the disquiet, writers raise is instructive because it is open and vulnerable, because if unpoliced it is threatening. Therefore the historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow. The history of persecuted writers is as long as the history of literature itself. And the efforts to censure, starve, regulate, and annihilate us are clear signs that something important has taken place” –Toni Morrison

Every year, Writers Resist facilitates several events across the nation, bringing together, “writers, readers, citizens, and community members to celebrate, reflect on, and find inspiration in the life and work of Toni Morrison,” (writersresisit2020.org). On March 29th, Writers Resist, in conjunction with HeadCount, a voting advocacy organization, will put on their “Write The Vote 2020” event. 

Writers Resist and HeadCount are using this event both to memorialize Morrison and to turn that loss into a force for positive change. This year, Writers Resist is focused especially on voter turnout. Citing the 2016 presidential election’s 60% national turnout, Writers Resist strives to empower writers and voters alike for the upcoming 2020 elections.

Writers Resist is using the hashtags #writethevote and #writethevote2020 to foster an online dialogue about voter advocacy and diversity. There’s already buzz building on the Internet about the upcoming events, and you can click on the hashtag to see what people have said about Writers Resist in years past. The Melrose Poetry Bureau (@MPoetryBureau) tweeted,

@PoetryPotty We invite you to & hope you will tweet a 3 line poem about voting or this election & tag it #WriteToVote

Meg Day (@themegdaystory), poet and professor, tweeted,

“Proud to be a part of the #WritersResist #WRITEtheVOTE2020 crew, but especially proud of this reminder: “Please keep this commitment to diversity in mind as you plan your event, & make sure that the ways in which you answer this call to action are inclusive & [#AccessibleAF].”

 To join the conversation, tweet with the hashtag #writetheovote2020, or visit their website, writersresist2020.org, to learn about the events and get engaged.

 

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Author Spotlight: Susan Choi

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Photo source: susanchoi.com

“It’s so hard to just decode the world. And when we’re teenagers, I think that we’re wildly improvising. We’re just sort of grabbing standards of judgment, we’re grabbing values out of the air, and hoping that they fit.” ­–From Alisa Chang’s interview with Susan Choi on All Things Considered

Susan Choi has emerged as one of the most inventive fiction writers of the last few years. Her latest novel, Trust Exercise, won the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction, but Choi certainly isn’t a new author. Her first novel was published over 20 years ago, and her second novel was a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. She has also written a collection of short stories, Wonderful Town: New York Stories, edited with David Remnick.

Trust Exercise is a must-read for anyone interested in a novel that can balance challenging subjects with entertainment value, but especially for any writer interested in social issues portrayed through narrative. Her novel begins in a performing arts high school, but midway through, breaks from a linear story structure by playing with the timeline. It’s been embraced as a #MeToo novel and lauded for its inventive structure that examines how stories are told, what happens when one’s life is written down, and how youth is remembered. Reading Trust Exercise makes the reader question who is narrating, and what voices can be trusted.

In 2019, not only did Choi publish Trust Exercise, she also released a children’s book. Readers can pick up a copy of Choi’s Camp Tiger along with their copy of Trust Exercises.

Trust Exercise has been optioned by Film Nation to be developed into a limited television series.

When Choi isn’t on her book tour, she teaches creative writing at Yale University and resides in Brooklyn, NY.

Written by Isaac Ruben

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