The Exquisite Exquisiteness of Carol

We got this piece seven months ago and shelved it because, at the time, it didn't seem like it could be of any great relevance; the author just really, really likes a movie. And then we saw this piece in Wired on the rapid efflorescence of extreme Carol fandom online.  And we reconsidered. Go figure. Seldom has a movie so moved me as Todd Haynes's Carol. Haynes is an auteur's auteur, a throwback to the heyday of Great Directors in the 1970s.  His 1995 film Safe nearly inspired me to write a book, and his 2007 I'm Not There--a riff on the identity and iconicity of Bob Dylan--almost made me stop hating biopics. Indeed, the director's versatility and willingness to play with issues of gender … [Read more...]

Why the Civil War Happened

Slavery. … [Read more...]

Spinning through Arab America (and More) with Randa Jarrar

Despite being a slim volume, Randa Jarrar’s remarkable collection, Him, Me, Muhammad Ali, manages to take readers on a world tour of unlikely places: the shabby apartments of an Egyptian beach town, the mean streets of Yonkers, the tony Seattle home of a celebrity feminist academic.  Jarrar, who teaches creative writing at Fresno State, offers readers a dazzling array of perspectives and voices, at turns slangy and foul-mouthed and bittersweet and lyrical.  Throughout it all, though, Jarrar ties together her short stories with the thread of an Arab and Arab-American experience that is diverse and varied yet utterly distinctive. Her voice may change from story to story, but it remains frank, … [Read more...]

Atoms on the Savannah: Kari Frederickson’s Look at Cold War Dixie

University of Alabama historian Kari Frederickson’s new book offers a compelling and insightful account of the Savannah River Project, a truly epic undertaking in which the Atomic Energy Commission and the Du Pont corporation partnered to build a massive facility for producing nuclear material in the 1950s.  It offers a fascinating complement to such works as Margaret Pugh O’Mara’s Cities of Knowledge and Marko Maunula’s Guten Tag Y’all, which have explored the differing paths that Southern communities took to transform their economies after World War II.  Compared to Frederickson’s earlier book on the Dixiecrat revolt, Cold War Dixie spends relatively little time on politics.  The author’s … [Read more...]

How the Labor Movement Shot Itself in the Foot: Rock Edition

“Ambition makes you look pretty ugly,” Thom Yorke sneered on Radiohead’s seminal 1997 album OK Computer. He did not mean aesthetic ambition, of course—the band had that in spades—but the crass materialism of a yuppie careerist, the proverbial “kicking, screaming Gucci little piggy.” The next year, rapper Amil made a very different declaration on a classic Jay-Z track: “Ambition makes me so horny… My hoochie remains in a Gucci name.”  Their two perspectives on material aspiration could not be more different—the art-rocker disdains the trappings of consumerism, while Amil is totally frank about the fact that she wanted her art to succeed commercially, to bring the comforts that upward mobility … [Read more...]

Get Out: The First Great Film of the Trump Era

We need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief. Suffice to say this quotation was not written by a Hollywood producer looking for the next big hit.  Driving an axe into the deepest fears and anxieties of audiences is not a recipe for success—perhaps not even in the horror genre. The words of Franz Kafka will likely provide cold comfort to those who already know and understand the black American experience firsthand—those for whom the disaster and the suicide that Kafka … [Read more...]

When Prince Met Spotify

This blog has never made a secret of its furtive love for the Purple One. He was one of the few cultural figures that we rushed an immediate retrospective about—the Beastie Boys being another, upon the death of MCA in 2012. For the Gen Xers and millennials who make up most of the writing team at Tropics of Meta, these artists meant enough to us in our formative years to merit instant assessment and reflection. Prince was also one of those unusual—and increasingly rare—characters in popular culture who boasted such universal appeal, across races, classes, and genders, that their death left a blast crater in the public consciousness, noticeable to those who hadn’t even heard the news. I … [Read more...]

An Inauguration Day Greeting from Tropics of Meta

Many years ago, I was teaching high school in Gastonia, North Carolina. The senseless, world-destroying catastrophe of the Iraq War was just breaking over the horizon at the time, and students asked me what I thought about it.  As a novice teacher, I didn't know what my proper response should be.  Personally, I was despondent.  Whether or not Saddam Hussein had "weapons of mass destruction"--we'd given them to him, after all--it seemed transparently obvious that Iraq posed no immediate threat to the United States, and the ideologues and used car salesmen in Washington were driving us into a pointless war of choice. It was a dark time, and arguably much of the horror of the twenty-first … [Read more...]

Kennan, Putin, and the Danger of Thinking Your Opponents Are Irrational

Years ago, I was in a stupid bar on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  We used to go there after work because they had ridiculously cheap Long Island Iced Teas during Happy Hour, which was almost always a mistake.  (Actually, not "almost"--just "always.") And one day a musclebound, intense-looking middle-aged white guy was there at the bar.  Somehow we got into a conversation.  He claimed to work for Blackwater, the mercenary company that the George W. Bush administration outsourced its foreign military misadventures to, and he said he was waiting to turn over his identity to some agent at that very bar, that very night. I would not have even given him the benefit of the doubt except that … [Read more...]

The Other Freestyle: Recovering 80s Latin Dance Music

I was wandering through a street fair off Canal Street a few years ago when I came across a stand selling bootleg CDs of hip-hop, rock, and many other genres.  The discs were mixes, rather than outright copies of already-released albums.  I had, of course, seen both in Manhattan, having picked up a $6 copy of Beck’s Guero on Varick Street and some amazing, educational anthologies of bossa nova and Americana near St. Mark’s Place in years past.  I did not know what I was in for when I visited this vendor, though. One CD was labeled Best of Freestyle.  Though I did not recognize the names – Nice N Wild, Sa Fire, Freeze – I assumed they must be old-school rappers of hip-hop’s golden age, … [Read more...]