Jewish World Review June 10, 2003 / 103 Sivan, 5763
Publications take us away from Middle East
Let's take a vacation from the news of the nasty world.
Next week, we can find out how the Israelis and Palestinians have finally set aside their tanks and suicide belts, hugged each other and headed down the road to eternal peace. Just like they've done so many times before.
This week -- thanks to a pair of small, critically acclaimed, financially struggling literary/cultural magazines -- we can visit two timeless, colorful parts of America -- the South and our Great Heartland.
The magazines that'll take us there are Oxford American -- aka the Southern Magazine of Good Writing -- and DoubleTake, which is famed for its big photo displays and "documentary" writings.
Oxford American, heralded by some as the "contemporary creative voice of South literature," was born 11 years ago in sleepy Oxford, Miss., land of William Faulkner and John Grisham, but now lives in Little Rock, Ark., after being bought by a healthy regional publisher.
Although national writers such as Grisham and William F. Buckley Jr. have appeared in Oxford American, you probably need to be from the South to truly dig its strict menu of Southern culture.
Along with a piece on Mississippi's infamous "slug burgers" and a report on the Southern literary mafia, the May/June issue features a standard cover profile of Gen. Wesley Clark, an Arkansan and hero of Kosovo, who's being touted -- at least in downtown Little Rock -- as a possible Democratic candidate for president.
Actually, the best way for Yankees to sample Oxford American's regional charms is to listen to its sixth annual music issue. On sale now, it comes with a free CD crammed with a tasty, eclectic array of R&B, blues, country, bluegrass, jazz, swing and pop. Just stick it in your CD player and read along, as 23 artists are richly profiled and pictured in print.
Willie Nelson and Linda Ronstadt appear. But the real treat comes in hearing unknown/forgotten/insufficiently heralded Southern talents such as cover girl Esther Phillips, the Blind Boys of Alabama, King Pleasure and Will Kimbrough.
DoubleTake is much more serious stuff -- often deadly serious stuff. Now a quarterly, it recently was saved from certain death at age 8 by two benefit concerts by new patron Bruce Springsteen that raised $1 million.
The current issue, which features zillions of words and scores of photos about the life, work and people of empty places such as Kansas, Montana and the Dakotas, is typical.
It contains old letters from Europe from super-poet William Carlos Williams, eight pages of type about a Beatles tribute band in Georgia and four pages of uninspiring poetry.
There are watercolors and sepia photos of cowboys in Colorado. Six oversized photos of prairie fires. Seven pages of photos from somewhere -- it's not supposed to matter -- in the Dakotas. Nine pages of aerial photos from South Dakota to Kansas. Nine more pages of council meetings from Minnesota to Manhattan.
DoubleTake tries hard, but it's so subtle it mostly tries your patience. The writing is often too deep and tiresome, the photos so deliberately commonplace and pointless they approach parody.
It's basically a beautiful coffee-table mag for people with graduate degrees in creative nonfiction or applied semiotics, but it's still better than reading about the Middle East.
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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald