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A master of the American short story, Richard Burgin has, over the years, haunted us with a range of lonely, neurotic, occasionally criminal, yet weirdly sympathetic characters. Now in A Thousand Natural Shocks, we have a collection of Burgin’s greatest hits plus a few new tales, thanks to the astute selections of editor Joseph D. Haske.

Richard Burgin is the author of 20 books. He has received five Pushcart Prizes for his fiction, a distinction accorded outstanding literary work published by small presses. His book The Identity Club: New and Selected Stories and Songs was listed in The Times Literary Supplement as one of the best books of 2006 and noted by The Huffington Post as one of the 40 best books of fiction in the last decade. The title story of that collection, “The Identity Club,” was the lead story in The Best American Mysteries 2005 and appears in The Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. “The Identity Club,” a tale of fraternity and fatal aestheticism, is also collected here, just one of the many best-of-Burgin stories in A Thousand Natural Shocks. In addition to his own contributions to the short story canon, Burgin is the founding editor of the internationally acclaimed literary journal Boulevard. More… “Prevalent Protagonists”

Lynn Levin is a poet, writer, translator, and teacher. She is the author of seven books, including the poetry collection, Miss Plastique; a translation from Spanish, Birds on the Kiswar Tree by Odi Gonzales; and, as co-author, Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets, second edition forthcoming 2019. She teaches at Drexel University. Her website is www.lynnlevinpoet.com.

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During an undergraduate English seminar, our professor got frank with us about her multiple miscarriages. It wasn’t completely out of sorts — the seminar was centered around the body and we had spent a lot of time with the concept of madness as elucidated by Elaine Showalter in The Female Malady. After more than 10 years, I don’t remember much about that course, but I do remember our instructor’s confessional moment, what felt like at the time, an incredibly intimate detail in her life. It wasn’t the first time I had come across the concept of miscarriage. At age four, I was told I was going to be a big sister and then not long after, was told I wasn’t. But I was struck by her openness and matter-of-factness. These weren’t situations we were supposed to discuss. It felt almost indecent and out of line at the time. More… Lost Time”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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Howard Hughes was one of the most significant and impactful figures of 20th century. Tycoon, movie producer, and philanthropist, Hughes was immortalized in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, a romanticized epic about the Hughes’s ascent as rugged individualist willing to combat the film industry, risk his life experimenting with airplanes, and manhandle classic Hollywood’s greatest actresses. The film also represents his eventual move toward complete isolation, his obsessive compulsive disorder encouraging him to seclude himself into sanitary screening rooms while watching and re-watching films. The film presents Hughes as a complicated but passionate man. Scorsese is nothing if not a film fan and The Aviator does much to unpack the ways in which Hughes’s foray into filmmaking contributed to Hollywood. The movie celebrates Hughes as a visionary and rugged individualist. He is reiterated as a folk hero. Like a true femme fatale, walks in Karina Longworth’s new book, Seduction: Sex, Lies, and Stardom in Howard Hughes’s Hollywood, which serves to provide more depth into Howard Hughes, looking not only at his work, but using his personal relationships to help illustrate his significance as Hollywood magnate but also addressing aspects of his character. The book not only challenges this image of Hughes as hero, but uses Hughes as a Trojan horse to unpack Hollywood’s ethically murky legacy. More… “Subverting Seduction”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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The opening of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire begins with a ship waiting in the middle of the night. It is dark, foggy, unsettling. Another boat approaches and they begin shifting boxes of whiskey from one ship to the other. A nameless character asks them to hurry, “I’m a sitting duck out here,” while another refers to the whiskey as “liquid gold.” The show about prohibition begins with the risks taken by rum and whiskey runners to import booze into the United States throughout the 1920s. Like other facets of popular culture that represent this period, the majority of show dwells on the criminality: the gangsters, the corrupt politicians, the members of law enforcement/IRS/Post Office that are attempting to hunt the “bad guys.” Scarface, Some Like it Hot, Robin and the 7 Hoods, The Untouchables, Lawless to Boardwalk Empire focus their efforts on the sordid, seedy, and sexy details of breaking the law. Hugh Ambrose’s posthumously published Liberated Spirits, takes a different tack. More… “Kindred Spirits”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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Within the past few years I have succumbed to a period of feminist ennui. It’s not that I no longer think the principles of equality are no longer important, but it seems as if the word and movement, “feminism,” has lost meaning. It has been co-opted, lazily applied, and devalued. I’ve become frustrated by so-called feminists whose actions betray their rhetoric and popular culture texts and figures who think just saying words like “feminist” and “intersectional” is enough. Just the idea that there is such an idea of bare minimum – that feminism is as simple as wearing a t-shirt, watching the female reboot of Ghostbusters, or reposting a quote from Gloria Steinem on her birthday. This is not to say that those things are not important, but that there is a sense that these instances have become more like rituals – they are to be done to reassert a sense of identity, but have lost meaning.

The new essay collection, Can We All Be Feminists? addresses the complications and hardwork of being a feminist who is intersectional, meaning understanding the ways in which feminism can and does intersect with race, disability, immigration, labor, and sexuality (to name a handful). The range of essays, edited by June Eric-Udorie, covers a lot of ground and at times seems like nothing holds them together, until you come back to the anchoring point that feminism and feminists have to diversify their portfolios. To end sexism, examining immigration policies, as Wei Ming Kam does in “The Machinery of Disbelief,” is as necessary as Hollywood’s recent interest in wage equality. And within the rhetoric of equal pay activism, the continued reiteration that “women get paid less” must further be broken down by these other intersecting points: white women are typically paid less than their male counterparts, women of color are often paid less than that, and women with disabilities even less. “Women” cannot be an umbrella term and nor can “feminist.” We have to become more discerning. More… “At the Crossroads”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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I think about shame a lot. I wonder when and why I began to care so much about stuff — my body, my face, my intellectual ability. Did it start when I was bullied on the bus in kindergarten? Was it some sort of pseudo-consciousness mind trick passed down from my parents? Was it because I picked up a Seventeen magazine when I was 11? For whatever reason, I remember a lot of low and high-key shame moments from my younger years. I didn’t want to wear shorts as a preteen, because I was starting to sprout leg hair and was too embarrassed I hadn’t started to shave. Clothes shopping in high school was never fun because I couldn’t find anything to adequately fit my body. I’d enter a dressing room with a pile and leave with nothing, because (what I imagined to be) my grotesque body wouldn’t cooperate. And while I was feeling so dejected and ashamed, I rarely vocalized. For years, I assumed everybody else had figured the body out. More… “For Shame”

Melinda Lewis has a PhD in American Culture Studies. She knows more celebrity gossip than basic math and watches too much television.

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Blue donkey in red bubble, blue house in blue bubble
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In the wake of the 2016 election, journalists and political commentators have been falling all over themselves to report on the plight of the so-called “white working class.” I hate to use the scare quotes, but the term is much less distinctive than it once was. We are all proletarians now: economic instability is keenly felt all over the country, at all levels of society, and not just among white people, either. Recent bestsellers like Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land and J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy prove that there is a considerable market for books addressing the economic, political, and cultural gaps between city and country, between left and right. The latest of these is Ken Stern’s Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right.

Stern, the former CEO of NPR and a lifelong Democrat, was inspired to write the book after realizing that while his posh Washington D.C. neighborhood celebrated diversity of all kinds, he didn’t personally know any conservatives or even know anybody who did. He decided to take a year-long trip through red states to better understand the ways of the right. Stern’s approach is well-intentioned but essentially flawed — just because he happens to live in a liberal neighborhood doesn’t mean that he’s the only one living in a bubble. More… “Republican Like Who?”

Matt Hanson lives in Boston and writes for The Arts Fuse,  Boston’s online independent arts and culture magazine.  His work has also appeared in The Baffler, The Millions, and 3 Quarks Daily, and other places.  He can usually be found in the nearest available used bookstore.

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It’s been a little over a year since Ari Banias’s first poetry collection, Anybody, debuted to critical accolades and honors, including a nomination for the PEN America Literary Award. With all that has happened since 2016, this stunning, complicated book is worth revisiting and considering through the lens of our particular political moment. Donald Trump has fulfilled the divisive promises of his presidential campaign: Standouts among his many troubling actions are cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, attempts to ban immigration from Muslim-majority nations and bar trans people from serving in the military, and his support of U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore, the bigoted, twice-fired Alabama judge and accused child molester. The #MeToo movement has also shed light on the systemic abuse of women by powerful men, including Trump himself, whose accusers are calling for him to be held accountable for alleged sexual assaults. At the same time, social media has amplified many historically marginalized voices, sparking crucial conversations on the national stage about racism, sexism, and LGBTQ+ discrimination. In this way, Anybody feels prescient. Not because it deals with any specific politics, but because it dramatizes the individual’s search for wholeness and community within a broken society. More… Anybody ’s Game”

Jen DeGregorio’s writing has appeared in The Baltimore Review, The Collagist, PANK, Perigee (Apogee online), The Rumpus, Third Coast, Spoon River Poetry Review, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Yes Poetry and elsewhere. She has taught writing to undergraduates at colleges in New Jersey and New York and is currently a PhD student in English at Binghamton University, State University of New York.

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The Parson Weems moment, the young-Washington-chopping-down-the-cherry-tree moment, in the accepted mythology of George Herman “Babe” Ruth involves a kindly mentor who first spots the hint of deity under the hardscrabble-boy exterior. It was Xaverian Brother Mathias at Baltimore’s St. Mary’s Industrial School for Boys who first took Ruth into gentle tutelage in the art and science of baseball. There are a few persistent apocryphal tales from those years: tales of the teenage Babe beginning to display the eye and reflexes that would one day make him one of baseball’s most underestimated pitchers and the sheer hitting power that would earn him immortality as the Wazir of Wham.

It’s a familiar device, these Parson Weems stories. They grow up entwined in the facts of their subjects’ biographies, covering the bare dates and facts with a green and shifting foliage of folklore.

No other figure from the world of 20th-century sports equals Babe Ruth’s folklore status — with only one exception: Muhammad Ali. The self-proclaimed “greatest,” the heavyweight champion boxer who taunted his opponents, sang his own praises, and by turns charmed and infuriated the world, had his own Parson Weems moment, or rather a one-two combination of them, and fittingly, it was a combination of outrage and showmanship — and the Parson was a cop. More… “Ali Alive”

Steve Donoghue is a reader, editor, and writer living in Boston surrounded by books and dogs. He’s one of the founding editors of the literary journal Open Letters Monthly and the author of one of its book­blogs, Stevereads. HIs work has appeared in The National, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and The Quarterly Conversation, among others. He tweets as @stdonoghue.

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About halfway through his essay “Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool,” George Orwell offers a startling explanation for Leo Tolstoy’s notorious antipathy towards Shakespeare: Tolstoy is “trying to rob others of a pleasure he does not share.” Further, “Tolstoy does not know, perhaps, just what he misses in Shakespeare, but he is aware that he misses something, and he is determined that others shall be deprived of it as well.” As criticism of criticisms go, this one is nothing if not blunt. Is it possible that the basis of much of what we consider rational, disinterested critical discourse is really just a willful schadenfreude? That idea, in truth, is not too far from what masses of ordinary people have always believed: that cultural criticism and personal criticism are essentially the same and that to engage in either is merely to inflict pain under the pretense of honesty or concern.

Surely an idea as reductive as this needs no refutation. When in his essay “Charles Dickens” Orwell writes that Dickens’s whole message reduces to one “enormous platitude: If men would behave decently the world would be decent,” he isn’t trying to stick it to Dickens lovers, is he? He isn’t, in short, doing to Dickens exactly what he accused Tolstoy of doing to Shakespeare? Certainly not. Unless he is. More… “Let Me Ruin This for You”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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