Thought Balloons

By Charles O'Brien

If Smoler [see below] is to be criticized for anything, it is for an excess of kindliness... Continue reading "Thought Balloons "

Teaching the Conflict

By Benj DeMott

Writers and cartoonists who refuse to honor Charlie Hebdo aren’t thinking straight. Yet I don’t hate their impulse to distance themselves from those who are down with gratuitous humiliation of Muslims in France or anywhere else. That impulse feels homey to me in part because my wife is a practicing Muslim. Continue reading "Teaching the Conflict"

The Trouble with Charlie

By Fredric Smoler

In 2006 Charlie Hebdo republished the Jyllands-Posten cartoons (as did First of the Month), and were sued by three Muslim organizations. This attempted use of the courts to punish speech did not provoke any memorable censure by the people who have recently protested PEN’s decision to honor the courage of the journalists who worked (and then died) at Charlie Hebdo. In that same year Alberta’s Human Right Commission investigated a newspaper (the Western Standard) over its republication of the cartoons; defending itself cost the Western Standard $100,000 (which would have bankrupted First of the Month many times over) and cost the organizations making the complaint nothing—by no means an inefficient approach to suppressing speech. Teju Cole and his allies within PEN seem to have let this episode, too, pass without comment. On November 2, 2011 the offices of Charlie Hebo were firebombed, which seems to have yet again failed to provoke any indignation from Cole, Prose or the rest. On January 7th Islamist murderers shot dead twelve people in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and at this point Teju Cole could no longer keep silent. In a piece titled “Unmournable Bodies”, which was published in the New Yorker a few days later, he attacked the dead journalists. Continue reading "The Trouble with Charlie"

Serial Storytelling in the 21st Century or, If Knausgaard Is the New Proust, Can Elena Ferrante Be the New Tolstoy?

By Karen Hornick

Narrative is a rhetorical structure used for all sorts of reasons not ineluctably aesthetic. These days, however, that isn’t always clear because writers on everything from education to presidential politics keep talking about the “need for narrative.” Cautions against this trend go back more than a decade, but narrative boosterism continues unabated. It’s as if the best rulers are the best storytellers, and we’ll be happier and better with a good story rather than, say, actual justice. Continue reading "Serial Storytelling in the 21st Century or, If Knausgaard Is the New Proust, Can Elena Ferrante Be the New Tolstoy?"

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Get the FIRST volume, THAT
FLOATING BRIDGE, right here

Seven Weddings and a Funeral

By Ben Kessler

If not the best pop film so far this year, Maroon 5’s “Sugar” music video is surely one of the most significant. I think Andy Warhol would’ve given props to director David Dobkin and the band—not just for “Sugar”’s popularity (358 million YouTube views as of this writing) but also for how this video reveals, even as it exploits, the needs of a new pop audience...The suspension of one’s disbelief in order to receive this pleasure entails the instant acceptance of the video’s main premise: Maroon 5 are such magical people that even on the most important day of your life, they are still more important than you. Continue reading "Seven Weddings and a Funeral"

Friends of Che

By David Golding

The history of the Cuban revolution, or rather the postmortem history of the Cuban revolution, is littered with sad villas (in Cuba, in Czechoslovakia, in Tanzania, in Bolivia) where good and brave men, including Che, hid out for months at a time, forced to endure unimaginable boredom for the sake of a paltry and imaginary goal, reading books on Soviet economy or Neruda, writing in their diaries (in the field no one, generally, except Che, was allowed to keep a diary, though that rule was frequently broken, especially by the men whom Che taught to write, though that was the fatal inequality that the famously austere and egalitarian Che introduced into his ranks), and it was ultimately this claustral paranoia, this love of sadomasochistic secrecy, that doomed it, the revolution. Continue reading "Friends of Che"

Home Truths

By Benj DeMott

About 100 pages into David Ritz’s unauthorized biograpy of Aretha Franklin, Respect, I flashed on Greil Marcus’s tagline for his book on Punk, Lipstick Traces, which he dubbed: “the secret history of the 20th Century.” Ritz’s concept is less expansive, but his deeply sourced raps on black musicking speak to the “secret history” of the African American nation in the second half of the 20th C. Respect’s lost and found historical conjunctures include one night in 1962 (February 20th to be exact), when Aretha Franklin played NYC’s Village Gate along with Thelonious Monk... Continue reading "Home Truths"

A Grown Woman's Tales of Detroit

By Marsha Music

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Five-year old Marsha Music stands tall in her father's record store.

Marsha Music née Battle is a writer of rootsy, elegant pieces on time past who grew up in Detroit, daughter of a pre-Motown record producer father. Her blog means to capture the vibrant, creative years of mid-century Black Detroit life before memories fade and the city "changes" once more. Your editor came upon her posts through a link on YouTube following an upload of the 14 year-old Aretha Franklin singing “Never Grow Old.” That performance was produced by Marsha Music’s dad who was the first to record Aretha. Continue reading "A Grown Woman's Tales of Detroit"

Happy Birthday, Mister Frank

By Richard Torres

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Blue-eyed boys at Sinatra's 80th birthday celebration.

Broadcast on December 17, [1995] by ABC, the program Frank Sinatra: 80 Years My Way featured a hodgepodge of acts from Salt-n-Pepa to Vic Damone to Steve & Eydie to Bruce Springsteen performing songs Ol’ Blue Eyes had made famous. Seated at an elevated table facing stage right, surrounded by family, a tuxedoed Sinatra appeared to take in the parade of performers with a respectful, ruminative restraint. He dutifully applauded each rendition—even joined the star-laden audience in a couple of standing ovations for Patti Labelle and Ray Charles—but maintained a sense of emotional remove. Age and frail health be damned, the Chairman of the Board was holding court in public and he was determined to maintain his legendary cool...Then Bob Dylan appeared onstage. Continue reading "Happy Birthday, Mister Frank"

"Money" Mayweather: A Postmodern Triumph

By Bob Ingram

Modern professional athletes are entirely beholden to their corporate masters. Fuck up the brand, and you’re gone. Pete Rose, Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson. On and on. The one name you will never ever see on that list is Floyd “Money” Mayweather. He is as morally reprehensible as any athlete has ever been, but he is also the first truly postmodern athlete. Jack Johnson and Muhammud Ali laid some pipe for him, but their times weren’t right for the kind of chaotic freedom Floyd Mayweather has forged... Continue reading ""Money" Mayweather: A Postmodern Triumph"

The Chocolate Speaks

By Bob Levin

One recent afternoon, I found myself in front of the TV, its sound muted, watching an NCAA basketball championship semi-final between Michigan State and Duke. Ten young men ran back and forth, right-to-left, left-to-right, upon this court...Ten young men, essentially unknown to me, so devoid of individuality as to require numbered chests and backs to be distinguished. Their actions were confined within a rectangle of rigid lines, which smaller, older men, armed with whistles, patrolled, keeping the young men’s impulses additionally controlled, even down to the adornment of their uniforms. And then there was this black-suited, rat-faced man I had seen in years past, returning like some recurring nightmare vision, crouching, prowling, pointing, snarling at the players, eyes narrowed, mouth twisted, every black hair in place. Continue reading "The Chocolate Speaks"

Between Good and Evil: Your NCAA and Mine

By Bob Liss

My personal peeve with Kryzyewski has always been his role in pioneering the flop at Army, while playing under Bobby Knight at a time when rule changes made offensive fouls non-shooting fouls, and referee’s habits and predilections were changing accordingly. My vision of K as the embodiment of deceptive sanctimoniousness and fraudulent beneficence flows freely from that association. Its arbitrariness generally escapes me. I need my good guys and bad guys too. Continue reading "Between Good and Evil: Your NCAA and Mine"

Secret Valentine

By Carmelita Estrellita

oh bitterest of valentines/ cancer sent me flowers/ I didn't know he was a friend of mine/ now he's with me at all hours Continue reading "Secret Valentine"

Living in Levine

By Benj DeMott

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Philip Levine: 1928 - 2015.

My title nods to the name of a lovely chapter in Levine’s memoir, The Bread of Time. “Living in Machado” looks back on Levine’s sabbaticals with his family in Spain where he learned the language and first encountered the work of the great (impossible to translate?) poet Antonio Machado. I won’t travel as widely here but take this as my trip through the land of Levine—a big country that includes poets he didn’t know, pieces he didn’t write, and a place not on any map. Continue reading "Living in Levine"

Two for Phil ("Sometimes We Tremble")

By Roxane Beth Johnson

Here’s two stories we love to tell: Jesus slept on a boat during a storm; Pharaoh’s army drowned. Death is a simple thing, he go from door to door... Continue reading "Two for Phil ("Sometimes We Tremble")"

Gentlemen of Principle, Priests of Presumption

By Benjamin DeMott

Our literary culture possesses, to this day, as England does not, a poetry of political incantation. Among our gifted younger writers are some who can image astounding solidarity with the outs, the bottom dogs, who can live into a snippet of near speech—a poor black father to son, at the zoo, pack it with furious force, becoming in the process priests of presumption, touching resonances of Whitman and Blake. Continue reading "Gentlemen of Principle, Priests of Presumption"

Who Ain't a Slave?

By David Golding

It’s not enough for a writer to have no owner and no conscience, but it’s a good start. It’s not enough because when he or she emerges from his or her isolation and melancholia, from the pure futility of the inland empire of liberty, there’s still the literary market to worry about and family dinners with collaborationist in-laws. Continue reading "Who Ain't a Slave?"

Assimilation

By Alison Stone

People who speak Spanish all have outside jobs, my daughter announces as the Mow 'n Blow crew descend from a truck to ravish our lawn. I read her a book about dark children dancing, playing drums with wrinkled elders, eating fried plantains. Bored, she grabs Dr. Seuss. Continue reading "Assimilation"

Hotlips

By Bob Ingram

I learned so much from George. I learned to travel light. I learned at first hand the Digger credo of “stay high, keep moving, and give all of yourself away” although I’ve always had trouble with the last part. And I learned the arcane language of the streets, perfect and alive. Continue reading "Hotlips"

10th and Bainbridge Blues

By Bob Levin

I take much of [Wendell] Berry to heart. I agree that man must recognize his commonality with others. I agree that the drive for acquisition is a planetary-abusing madness. But I have my doubts about his solution. Maybe it’s because my grandfather, as a teenager, fled his family’s plot in Alliance, New Jersey, for the Babylon of South Philadelphia; but I feel Berry left unanswered the old musical question, “How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen 10th & Bainbridge?” Continue reading "10th and Bainbridge Blues"

Chicago Breakdown

By Nick Salvatore

It is important to remember [Thomas] Geoghegan’s deep commitment over many years to the American labor movement and progressive causes in light of the tone and structure of his most recent book, Only One Thing Can Save Us. For as the title suggests, a deep despair suffuses the text. Continue reading "Chicago Breakdown"

A Woman of No Rank

By Casey Hayden

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Casey Hayden and a buddy back in the day.

Thanks for the inquiry about the movie Selma. I used to avoid all media about the movement. The stuff never rang true. Then I realized these treatments were just takes on an imagined past; they're not about my reality...I saw the movie yesterday. My favorite part was the old black and white film, in which the funk and poverty appeared, a burst of truth inside the Hollywood gloss. Continue reading "A Woman of No Rank"

The Resistance to American Sniper

By Fredric Smoler

What too few (if any) of the critics remark on is what I find most striking about American Sniper: its protagonist’s unprecedented prowess in war has no effect on the outcome of the war he is fighting. The film severs the link between epic skill at arms and both personal and collective outcomes as thoroughly as any of the First World War literature does... Continue reading "The Resistance to American Sniper"

Selma vs. LBJ

By Alec Harrington

In 1991, Oliver Stone slandered Lyndon Johnson in his film JFK, accusing Johnson of complicity in the assassination of President Kennedy. A number of historians and political figures have argued that Ava DuVernay’s new movie Selma defames LBJ as reluctant to send Congress a voting rights bill and as opposed to the Selma voting rights campaign. Selma is, indeed, unfair to Lyndon Johnson, but criticizing Selma is more complicated than criticizing JFK... Continue reading "Selma vs. LBJ"

Selma to Timbuktu

By Benj DeMott

Selma traduces LBJ (see above), but what’s worse is its take on Martin Luther King’s deliberations in the days after the police riot on Pettus Bridge terminated the first major Civil Rights march in Selma. Continue reading "Selma to Timbuktu"

Mr. Turner & Mr. Leigh

By Karen Hornick

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One of my suppositions here is that Mr. Turner is probably as close to an autobiography as Leigh will create... Continue reading "Mr. Turner & Mr. Leigh"

Mindless Pleasures

By Ben Kessler

Anderson’s perspective in Inherent Vice is his own, not Pynchon’s, and totally consistent with the rest of his work. His status in Hollywood makes sense, as he is, in a way, the emblematic popular filmmaker of the post-cinema period. Continue reading "Mindless Pleasures"

The Eternal Engine

By P.J. Podesta

The greatest virtue of Snowpiercer, Bong Joon-ho’s dystopian action film, may be its oddity. At first the movie seems a straightforward sci-fi tale of rebellion against oppressive elites—in this incarnation: aboard a megatrain racing perpetually across the frozen world in the wake of a global warming mitigation experiment gone wrong. Continue reading "The Eternal Engine"

Emergency Rooms and Cutting Rooms: What's Wrong with The Fighter

By Milo George

This piece from First's archives punctuates the movie-related posts above. Author Milo George grasps that even half-decent Hollywood movies based on actual events often amount to crimes against reality. Continue reading "Emergency Rooms and Cutting Rooms: What's Wrong with The Fighter"

Fattening Frogs for Snakes

By Charles O'Brien

Jacobin wasted no time posting a comment on this week’s killings in Paris. ‘On Charlie Hebdo’ was written by a Richard Seymour, a regular Jacobin contributor, here reprinted from his blog, which is nothing less than Lenin’s Tomb. Mr. Seymour is further identified as the author of The Liberal Defence of Murder; and according to Amazon.com, he is also the author of a book-long posthumous excoriation of Christopher Hitchens. Here’s the opening sentence: ‘Many journalists at the offices of Charlie Hebdo have been murdered by bampots brandishing what appear to be machine guns at close range.’ And yet, Mr. Seymour seems to make a living with his pen. That ‘at close range’ is intriguing. The point, you’d guess, is that these people were shot at close range, an evocative detail. If only he'd said that. Continue reading "Fattening Frogs for Snakes"

Who Is Charlie?

By David Golding

I’m going to begin with an olive branch: not all of Sunday’s “Unity March” in Paris was a proto-fascist omen... Continue reading "Who Is Charlie?"

Endangered Species

By Scott Spencer

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It’s Christmas Eve and it has been raining all day in a kind of incessant Blade Runner post-apocalyptic way: a muddy Christmas! Gasoline is suddenly well under three bucks a gallon so it’s hello greenhouse and goodbye ozone. Hunting season upstate and my dog has found a bag of guts a neighbor has left outside after butchering his doe. Yet the main thing about today, beyond the appalling weather, my rancid mutt, my worries for the environment, and the anniversary of the birth of the Infant Jesus is that I finished reading a great novel and I am surging with energy and feeling the aesthetic thrill of having experienced something original and important. Continue reading "Endangered Species"

Strangers in the Land (and Humanism in the Arena)

By Benj DeMott

“Scripture tells us we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger. We were strangers once, too."...Barack Obama’s vision of a more empathetic America seemed beamish if you read Darren Wilson’s testimony about why he had to kill the “demon” Michael Brown or watched video of police taking down Eric Garner (then mulling around him afterwards like he was a beast of no nation). The retaliatory assassination of the two cops (and family men) last Saturday in Brooklyn wasn't a blow to empire so much as a blow to empathy itself. Those head-shots went to the heart of the country. Continue reading "Strangers in the Land (and Humanism in the Arena)"

Obama's Executive Action

By Eugene Goodheart

David Brooks agrees with the substance of Obama’s executive action on immigration, but believes that he has transgressed the Constitution in the process...When it is pointed out that Obama’s action has its precedents in the actions of his predecessors, Republicans as well as Democrats, Brooks responds by noting the scale of the action, 5 million rather than 1.5 million under George H.W. Bush. He does not explain how this makes Obama’s action, but not Bush’s, unconstitutional. Continue reading "Obama's Executive Action"

Mirror

By Alison Stone

I am white, I can feed silence. Continue reading "Mirror"

Buzzfeed

By Benj DeMott

Bill McKibben’s Oil and Honey is a Jeremiad about Global Warming that’s also a charm offensive. The author’s faith in the appeal of his teacherly Yankee persona seems almost as strong as his certitude rising levels of atmospheric carbon will have a devastating impact on the climate. Continue reading "Buzzfeed"

Media Narratives and Their Unreliable Narrators

By Eugene Goodheart

The unreliable narrator is a notable feature of the modern novel. The sophisticated reader is expected to pick up clues (planted by the novelist as distinguished from the narrator) in order to correct whatever false impressions he or she receives from the narration. The novelist forgoes the privilege of omniscient narration to awaken the reader from the torpor of passivity, encouraging intelligent resistance to what the narrative voice is saying about the world it is representing. In the world of politics, we speak of the media narrative of our political life. The narrators (and there are many) are called pundits. Their reading or listening audience are generally uneducated in the practice of distinguishing between the unreliable, who are legion, and the reliable narrators, who are few. Continue reading "Media Narratives and Their Unreliable Narrators"

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Get the FIRST volume, THAT
FLOATING BRIDGE, right here

Confessions of Ben Rhodes, Speechwriter & Deputy National Security Advisor

By David Golding

Sure, I’ll yuck it up with the press about my novel, Oasis of Love, but the truth is if it wasn’t as good as Jonathan Franzen it was at least no worse than Jonathan Safran Foer, that cocksucker, vegetarian, limp-wrist, he’s never saved hundreds of Yazidis on a hill, he’s never bombed the shit out of ISIS, he’ll never write a Nobel Prize acceptance speech (not at this rate), he’ll never know how to strike the right balance between humanism and war... Continue reading "Confessions of Ben Rhodes, Speechwriter & Deputy National Security Advisor"

Uncool World

By Lex Brown

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Race today.

Now is the strangest time in American history to be a black person. Never before was it so ambiguously defined. It’s not like someone is telling me “You are 3/5 of a human.” To which I could say “Uhhh, nah.” Most of the time, no one comments on my blackness. But I experienced a deep sorrow and terror looking at pictures of military tanks and the ongoing unrest in St. Louis. Then I remember my skin color is a permanent indicator of social inequities whose resolution has gone down slow for centuries, with all the confusion that can entail. Having access to a legacy of cool is one of the few obvious upsides about being black in America. But as social and cultural institutions slowly accept the wide-ranging modalities of blackness, it becomes increasingly complex to understand what constitutes a “black experience,” and how the idea of black cool plays into that. Continue reading "Uncool World"

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"The program is for
students who already have
a lot on their minds,
who mean to have much,
much more on their minds."
-Robert Hullot-Kentor, Chair

IMMA LET YOU FINISH

By Ben Kessler

“Shake It Off,” director Mark Romanek’s recent clip for Taylor Swift, depicts bad new trends in beautiful old ways. It works the same way as the best ‘80s-‘90s music videos—using semiotics to express up-to-the-minute changes in pop culture, producing the sort of imagery commentators and marketers now glibly call “iconic.” Continue reading "IMMA LET YOU FINISH"


After the Morning: Reflections on Amiri Baraka's Legacy

By Sam Abrams, Ammiel Alcalay, Asha Bandele, Julian Bond, Wesley Brown, Benj DeMott, Tom DeMott, Diane di Prima, Bongani Madondo, Richard Meltzer, Jeremy Pikser, Connor Tomas Reed, Aram Saroyan, Robert Farris Thompson & Richard Torres

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What follows are remembrances of Amiri Baraka by First writers and readers (new and old). While there's nothing official about this tribute, everyone who contributed hopes it might serve as a comfort and/or calmative to Baraka's wife Amina and his sons and daughters. Continue reading "After the Morning: Reflections on Amiri Baraka's Legacy"






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