Friday, October 31, 2008

The place to be on election night

If you live in the New York City area and want to spend Tuesday night in an atmosphere of solidarity watching the results come in and celebrating the historic election of the first African American president*, the places to be are the Schomburg Library or outside the Harlem State Office Building at 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard. The Schomburg event will include live TV coverage, a book signing, an exhibition on African Americans and politics, food and drink; I've heard there's a $10 charge. The crowds gathered outside on 125th Street will watch the returns live on a Jumbotron screen for free.

(*Unless the racist forces in key cities and states do their dirty tricks to steal the election, in which case these will still be the places to be, in solidarity and outrage. But today's theme is optimism. Tuesday night will be a historic moment in the struggle against racism, a moment of hope for the millions upon millions who have been disenfranchised for so long. An Obama victory is not a revolutionary development, not in any way, but it will reflect a new level of multinational unity in the working class, a new solidarity, and that is something to celebrate.)


At the finish of the first full month of this blog, I gotta say I'm having fun with it. And, lo and behold, somebody's reading it, which makes it even more fun. OK, we're not talking thousands of hits, but most days a handful, and some days an armful, of folks give it a look, and only a couple are folks I know personally. For example, I don't believe I know anyone who lives in Brazil or Turkey or England, or Montana, Maine or South Carolina. So to those who've checked it out, thanks. I hope you've found an item or two of interest, and I hope you come back now and then.

It's not as if there's a surfeit of lesbian communist lit blogs. You might find something here you won't find anywhere else. That's my goal, anyway.

I want to offer special thanks to the novelist, teacher and lit blogger extraordinaire Tayari Jones, who has very kindly linked to this blog several times on her own blog, which is always lively and interesting. It's an honor to know that an author of Tayari's caliber checks out what I've got to say.

There's a flip side worth mentioning. I've sent notes to perhaps a couple dozen other artists, writers, musicians and lit bloggers letting them know about Read Red, asking them if it's okay if I include their sites in my links section and requesting that they link to me too. With only one exception, none has responded. Sigh. It ain't easy being red. Or lavender and red. Ah well ... revolutionary optimism and all that ...

So: onward. Red and read or bust!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Can't wait to sink my teeth into this

Earlier this week I had a quite successful session at my local Queens library. Among other goodies, I nabbed Tananarive Due's latest novel, Blood Colony. It's so great when you happen upon a new book by an author whom you're pretty darned sure is incapable of disappointing. I've read most if not all of Tananarive Due's earlier novels and loved each one. She has a unique gift, in my opinion.

I don't want to get into a whole thing about the fraught topic of genre, at least not now with my lunch hour almost over, and I certainly don't have any firm principled opinion on the issue, but the sad fact is that I almost never find genre work interesting or original. However, Ms. Due's novels, drenched with supernatural horror as they are, are also full of provocative ideas, substantively engaged with the real world and its real-world horrors, and, above all, beautifully written works of literature. I don't know if that makes them the best of the horror genre or if it means they transcend genre. Either way, it is wonderful work and I can't wait to open up this new one.

Pulp fiction & other nostalgia

I don't know how or why, 32+ years after I was last a student there, the University of Michigan Women's Studies Department suddenly added me to their mailing list, but this week I received their (annual? biannual?) snazzy glossy magazine. For me, the highlight of a piece about a graduate seminar on "Lesbian Worlds" they currently offer was this reproduction of the cover of what may be the first 50s lesbian pulp fiction, the postwar French novel Women's Barracks by Tereska Torres, available in a reissued English translation from the Feminist Press.

There's much more about the course, taught by Professor Esther Newton, at, including a number of other noteworthy images like these covers of The Ladder, the lesbian magazine published by Daughters of Bilitis, whose beloved co-founder Del Martin recently died.

All this got me briefly nostalgic for my Ann Arbor days and wondering whether the course covers any of the history of the lesbian community there during the first post-Stonewall years when I was part of it. Which in turn reminded me that some years back, when I was doing research for my first novel at the Lesbian Herstory Archives, I came across a newspaper clipping about an Ann Arbor protest by GAWK -- the Gay Awareness Women's Kollective -- in 1974 or 1975 and there in the photo, very young and very skinny, was me. I couldn't resist incorporating a reference to GAWK -- wasn't that the greatest name ever? -- into the novel, in a scene set, yes, in Ann Arbor in the 70s.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Another pearl on its way

I just heard that the divine Sarah Waters has a new novel coming out in the spring. I've been meaning to post something here about her fiction as an example of what wonders a politically minded writer can do -- she clued us in to what she was about in that scene toward the end of her marvelous first novel Tipping the Velvet where the main character meets Eleanor Marx at a protest rally in Victorian London -- but I haven't had time to do her justice. Instead, for now, a confession. A few years ago when she was in New York and taking part in a reading at Cooper Union, I arrived before the event began and saw her standing outside talking. Some crazed groupie/stalker persona took me over and I burst into her circle loudly babbling, "You have singlehandedly been the saviour of lesbian literature!" Startled and no doubt a little scared, she graciously thanked me and was hustled away by her entourage.

Just this past weekend my lover Teresa and I watched a movie version of Waters' second novel Affinity. The film was pretty good. Captured the mood well. I love all Waters' work but Affinity is my favorite. That said, I have never come across a sexier line in any book by her or anyone else than this one in Fingersmith:
Oh you pearl! You pearl!
Now comes another reason to look forward to spring.

Toni Morrison on political art

The cover story in the November-December issue of Poets & Writers is about Toni Morrison, whose upcoming novel A Mercy I'm eagerly awaiting. The piece, by Kevin Nance, is mostly based on an interview with the author but also includes some criticisms of her by other writers and critics. The core of the critique is that her writing is too political and, astonishingly, that somehow this country's history of chattel slavery is no longer relevant for contemporary fiction. Ms. Morrison demolishes both points:
Responding to the "political" rap, her gaze sharpens. "All of that art-for-art's-sake stuff is BS," she declares. "What are these people talking about? Are you really telling me that Shakespeare and Aeschylus weren't writing about kings? All good art is political! There is none that isn't!"
And "she says in a steely voice":
Slavery can never be exhausted as a narrative. Nor can the Holocaust; nor can the potato famine; nor can war. To say slavery is over is to be ridiculous. There is nothing in those catastrophic events of human life that is exhaustible at all.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Women playwrights unite!

Tayari Jones calls attention to tonight's town hall meeting about the theater establishment's sexist skew against producing works by women playwrights. Novelist and playwright Sarah Shulman is one of the key organizers. I have a lot of respect for Sarah (who I know ever so slightly from the long ago early days of ACT UP), for having repeatedly called attention to how hard it is for lesbian fiction, particularly political lesbian fiction, to find its way to publication and, even harder, to bookstore shelves. A topic with which I am, um, painfully intimate.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A prize-winning petit-bourgeois fable

After going about seven weeks without reading a book, aargh, in the aftermath of two cataract surgeries, I finally got my new glasses last week. Why in the world the book I chose for my first book after this awful drought was one guaranteed to get my dander up is a mystery. Or not: I never learn. Yes, I fell, once again, for the word of the establishment reviewers and the big-money literary awarders. And was once again disappointed. But I was an even bigger dolt than usual because the topic should have warned me off.

It's the story of Lev, a Russian immigrant to London, his struggles and travails as he tries to survive and to send money home to support his aging mother and young daughter. The novel is Rose Tremain's The Road Home, which won the 2008 Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction.

As a general rule, I stay away from novels about life in Soviet or post-Soviet Russia, especially novels that win critical praise in the mainstream press let alone big-money prizes. I know they'll always slander the USSR. At the same time, though, as I noted in an earlier post, I'm really pretty, well, liberal in my fiction reading, I have pretty modest requirements politically since otherwise it would be very hard to find anything to read. So I've managed to read a novel or two peopled by residents of or emigrants from post-Soviet Russia, novels in which various characters have various views about the former system; if they're well written and if they at least include some characters who lament the demise of any attempt at equality of wealth and rights and some truths about the sad reality of current conditions, I'm game. Which is why I gave this one a shot.

Until about halfway through I was content. Tremain's writing, as noted all around, is lovely. The main as well as the secondary characters are well drawn and fully dimensional. And there did seem to be some recognition that all is not well in present-day dog-eat-dog Russia, as well as that many Russians supported the soviet system and rue its passing. So far so good. Alas, not for long. The plot begins to inexorably take shape, and what seemed at the start to be developing as a gritty, realistic portrayal of the life of a migrant laborer devolves into a petit-bourgeois fable.

From the point when I realized that Lev was going to tumble into a series of deeply unlikely coincidences, happy connection after happy connection every one of which would bring him a fast flush of cash, quickly filling his pockets so he could return home a hero saving the day for his family and friends by becoming a small business owner in the new happy capitalist Russia, I lost faith in Tremain's truthfulness and so lost interest in her fairy-tale of a story. This novel, it turns out, is simply a slightly more artful version of the deeply dishonest narrative that in this country they call the "American dream."

The way to achieve happiness and personal fulfillment (the road home of this novel's title) is through financial prosperity via business ownership. This goal is attainable by anyone. All you have to do is work very very hard and believe in yourself and you too can become a capitalist, initially of the petty scale but hey who knows eventually millions may come your way.

Dream this, this fantasy's purveyors urge workers and poor people, those born here and those who've migrated in search of survival -- dream this instead of organizing unions, instead of fighting for your rights, instead of demanding decent pay and benefits for everyone -- dream this, your beautiful dream of individual wealth and autonomy, instead of joining together with the millions and billions who create all wealth but own nothing. Dream this, please. That way nothing will change.

As to The Road Home, with its stunningly silly portrait of private ownership as panacea to the problems of immigrant workers, it seems to me, pretty sentences aside, to fail any test of art that would claim, as apparently this book does, to be engaged with the real world. In the real world, hundreds of thousands of Eastern European workers who've been set adrift to fend for themselves since the overthrow of the workers' states endure horrible conditions, crappy jobs, terrible treatment when they migrate west looking for work -- especially the tens of thousands of inhumanly exploited girls and women who've been swept up into the traffic in women. In the real world, millions of African, Caribbean and Latin American, Arab, South Asian and East Asian workers cross continents and oceans desperate to feed themselves and their families and find vicious racism, brutal treatment, backbreaking labor at despicably low wages, all of it topped off with scapegoating and violence.

Will each, will most, will any of these millions have a story that in any way resembles Lev's? Simply meet a kind soul here, a generous business owner there, pocket a few thousand dollars or pounds or euros and in a matter of a year or two return home flush with capital and settle down into solid petty-bourgeois respectability. Yeah, right.

That's not just unrealistic. The story doesn't merely fail to ring true, doesn't merely raise false hope. The fable of a petit-bourgeois solution to the problems facing the working class provides no hope at all. For hope doesn't reside in changing classes to join the exploiters. Hope is in the struggle against the exploiting class, the struggle, eventually, to do away with it.

I'm looking for fiction that doesn't blur the distinction.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Notes from a red reader

I started this blog almost a month ago in the hope of making a modest contribution to the online literary conversation by posting thoughts, observations, news and links from the left side, the workers' side, of the class divide that marks the arts along with every other part of society. I named the blog Read Red, reflecting my fancy that perhaps others who are passionate about both reading and the class struggle might find their way here and find something of interest or even of use. It's been fun so far, modest though it is and will continue to be. Now seems a good moment to take a breath and say a bit more about the blog, and me, and red reading.

I am a Marxist but I'm not a Marxist academic. I'm more of the in the streets marching against oppression and exploitation variety, the organize the class and fight for socialism variety. Not the quote Foucault and work toward tenure type. Anyone who stops by here looking for highly refined literary analysis is bound to be disappointed. What will be on offer, as best I can manage it, is class-conscious book talk.

That's the starting point.

What books are out there that speak to the lives of workers and oppressed people? What books are out there that claim to but don't? What stories demand to be told? Who will tell them?

Who's getting published and who isn't? Who even gets to write and who doesn't? How does working-class literature find its way to print? Why does it not? Which books from other countries get translated into English and published here, and which don't? Is there any route for us to find our way to the class-struggle stories that are being written in this country and around the world?

This is, obviously, to be continued. For now I'll close with a bit more fleshing out of my bio. I feel conflicted about it -- it feels icky, creepily self-serving on the one hand, but on the other hand it seems like I ought to explain myself a bit, tell who the hell I am if I'm asking strangers to read what I have to say -- so here goes.

I was born in Detroit and raised across 8 Mile Road in Oak Park. I lived in Ann Arbor, first going to school, then working as a city bus driver, during which time I was on strike twice. I've lived in New York since 1982, and for most of that time I've worked as a university secretary (on strike once) except for a stretch when I was a full-time political organizer and writer. I've been an activist in the labor movement, against racism and imperialist war, for women's and LGBT liberation, my whole adult life. A writer? That's a newer identity. I started writing fiction about 10 years ago. At this point I've written one novel and am at work on a second, along with short stories and poetry. I have been trying for some time to get my first novel published, so far without success, which may or may not have to do with its political content, about which I may or may not blog in more detail at some point.

Reading is as central to my life, my personality, my character even, as any item in that little biographical sketch. Reading is a constant. It is nutrition. It is breath. Ask me who I am and my answer will include the words "communist" and "worker" and "lesbian" -- but it will also include the word "reader."

A red reader's life is a landscape of peaks and valleys. It's a quest. Lots of getting your hopes up and lots of disappointments. Settling for a standard of good enough, searching for the rarity of breathtaking honesty and beauty. As soon as I have another chance I'll list some examples to illustrate the ups and downs of a red reading life.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Crab-Canning Ship

In Germany, as noted here last week, Karl Marx's books are flying off the shelves. Now comes word that there's a hot new bestseller in Japan: the almost 80-year-old novel The Crab-Canning Ship, whose communist author Takiji Kobayashi was murdered by the imperial regime. A new manga version of the story is also selling briskly.

Here's an excerpt from an October 18 London Daily Telegraph report:

"Nearly eight decades after it was written by Takiji Kobayashi, a communist who was tortured to death for his political beliefs aged 29, its sales have leapt from a slow annual trickle of 5,000 to 507,000 so far this year, unexpectedly catapulting it to the top of the nation's bestseller lists.

"A 'manga' comic book depicting the same Marxist tale is also winning over young Japanese, with 200,000 copies sold in a year. Kosuke Maruo, editor at East Press, which publishes the manga version, said: 'The story succeeds in representing very vividly the situation of the so-called working poor today.

"'They cannot become happy and they cannot find the solution to their poverty, however hard they work. Young people who are forced to work for very low wages today may have a feeling that they are in a similar position to the crew of Kanikosen.'"

Two months before the Telegraph took note, the Japan Times covered the book's suddenly explosive sales:

"A book released nearly 80 years ago and considered a representative piece of proletarian literature is apparently striking a chord with young part-time workers amid growing income disparities and poverty in Japan. ... The pocket-size book had been republished but around February a Tokyo bookstore ran an advertisement that read, 'Working Poor?' following an article on the 75th anniversary of Kobayashi's death.

"Shinchosha Publishing Co. said that in a normal year around 5,000 copies of the book would be reprinted. But this year, it has already printed nearly 380,000 copies. The Tokyo publisher said people in their 20s account for about 30 percent of buyers."

Also in August, a workers' demonstration was themed around the Kobayashi book. "Now the whole world has become 'Crab-Canning Ship.'"

I had a hard time finding it because the title is different, but there is an English translation. The Factory Ship, translated by Frank Motofuji and published in 1973 by UNESCO and the University of Tokyo Press.

UPDATES: Additional posts about The Crab-Canning Ship are here, and here, and here.

To read, to write agendas

Some friends gave me a $25 bookstore gift certificate for my birthday a couple months ago. I've been holding on to it during all the drama with my vision and its repair. But now, coinciding almost perfectly with my return to normal sightedness and glasses wearing (they're on order and I should be bespectacled again in about a week), comes this:
A new work by the literary genius of our time. Can there be any doubt about what I'm buying with that gift certificate?

I thought Toni Morrison's last novel, Love, was way underappreciated. I remember sitting on the subway on the way home from work as I finished reading its final pages and frantically trying to maintain my composure and control my facial muscles to prevent myself from collapsing into sobs. God it packed a wallop. It was so brilliantly constructed. I didn't know what had hit me.

I've also just heard that this is coming out in January:

What interests me is that part of the plot has to do with U.S. soldiers in the Korean War. I look forward to reading it because there is so little literature that even acknowledges that vile war. The U.S. invaded a sovereign country to prevent the victory of the socialist revolution led by Kim Il Sung that was sweeping the Korean peninsula; by war's end the imperialist allies had divided the nation and killed 5 million people. To this day U.S. troops still occupy Korea to prevent north and south from reuniting, the dearest wish of the vast majority of Koreans.

Me, I've been working off and on for over a year on a short story whose main character is an elderly man whose whole adult life has been distorted by the atrocities he took part in as a GI in Korea. (Here's an article about the U.S. massacre of Korean civilians in 1950 at No Gun Ri.) Lately I've been reworking it to have it set at the present moment, during the Fall 2008 presidential campaign. My protagonist has led a stunted life secretly haunted by his Korean victims; perhaps there's some redemptive way back into society for him now. If I could pull it off it would be a nice counterpoint to the lies and hypocrisy in the official story of John McCain. Hailed by one and all as a war hero, he is in fact a war criminal. He was one of the willing, conscious, committed murderers of thousands of Vietnamese civilians during Operation Phoenix. The My Lai massacre is the most well known event of Operation Phoenix but the hundreds of people killed there make up just a fraction of the victims of McCain and his cohort.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Domestic ironies

I've read a couple early reviews of the new book Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury, by Alison Light, which explores Virginia Woolf's relationships with the workers who kept her and her households cleaned, fed and so on from childhood on, and the contradictions between these relationships and Woolf's generally progressive views on social questions. It's a great idea, examining class relations in Woolf's own life and the lives of her literary circle, and this sounds like an interesting book.

So when I saw another review of it, a full-page one by the novelist Claire Messud in the October 19 New York Times Book Review, I settled down with a cup of coffee to read it. And it's not bad in the not-bad standard NYTBR format, which always reminds me of the book reports we gave in grade school that basically consisted of synopses of the book rather than any sort of literary critique or analysis. Hey, we were 10. I don't know what the NYTBR's reviewers' excuse is. The saving grace, though, is that since there's no way I'll ever get the time to read many of these books, these blandly informative reviews that digest and regurgitate the main points do provide a service of sorts. In this case, for instance, thanks to this review, I now know the names and vital statistics of Sophie Farrell, Nellie Boxall and Lottie Hope, three of the central figures of Light's book, as well as the crucial issues involved in the dynamic between them and Woolf. So cool. Book review as Cliff's Notes.

Then there's this, right toward the end: "But as anyone who has been or had a cleaner or a baby sitter knows, the tensions, the concern and responsibility, the emotional involvement, are not unique to Woolf or to Bloomsbury; they are the near-inevitable stuff of women's lives to this day." Hmm. Perhaps I shouldn't assume that the women's lives referred to after the semicolon aren't those pre-semicolon folks who have been, that is, the workers, but only those who have had, that is, the employers of the household workers. But I do, especially given the sentence's construction that contrasts today's women's lives to Woolf and Bloomsbury. So. I'm not a great one for irony but here we have a hearty dose, even if unintentional. A full page about the class relations of prosperous writers and their servants, about bringing those relations to light, concluding with a clueless conflation of all women with the nanny-reliant set the NYTBR is written by and for.

Update: I just listened to this brief recording, via the BBC (link thanks to Laila Lalami's blog), of Virginia Woolf speaking about words. Good golly, if her accent doesn't say it all about class my name is Margaret Dumont!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Back on the best seller list

Is this trend likely to hit our shores any time soon? I'm not a betting gal but it seems like an obvious yes.

The write side

So let's see if I have this right. There once was a time, long long ago, when the Czech writer Milan Kundera, for over 30 years now one of the imperialist bloc's most beloved and highly promoted anti-communist artists, may have taken action in defense of his country against the CIA's relentless, dirty postwar campaign to undermine and destroy the Czech and all the Eastern European workers' states. According to the report that just surfaced, Kundera turned in a traitor who was working as an informant for the United States. Kundera of course denies it. What's interesting about the story, however, isn't what he did or didn't do. It's how the telling of it so well illuminates the utter stranglehold of bourgeois ideology in news and arts coverage in this country. The "accusation" is that Kundera acted in defense of his country to expose acts of treason at a time when his country, still in the throes of the suffering and poverty brought on by World War II, was struggling to feed, house, employ, educate, and provide health care equally for everyone. This is depicted as a shocking act of villainy. Natch. Here in the homeland of exploitation, racism and oppression, anything on the side of the socialist alternative is always evil and anything on the side of capitalist inequity -- er, I mean democracy -- is good and pure. Yecch.

I know I keep writing about what I claim to plan to start writing about, but ... I do want to explore the whole issue of which writers from other countries get translated into English and published in this country, and which don't. It's complicated, I think. Ultimately, I think, it has a lot to do with what serves the bourgeois class (by which I don't only mean the profits of the publishers), but it's not cut and dried. Except when it is, as in Kundera's case.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Arab Film Festival

Over the weekend I got a flier in the mail from the Arab American literary journal Mizna about the fifth annual Arab Film Festival that they sponsor. I wish I could go, but it's in Minnesota. If you're there, go. Whether you can go or not, subscribe to this excellent journal.

Review-less weekend

Because I had an unusually action-packed weekend, I never got to read the Sunday Times Book Review. I may not get to it till later this week. I have a fraught love/hate relationship with that rag. Mostly I hate it. But I can't seem to live without it, which has to do with the dearth of good sources for news of new books, a topic I plan to write about here soon. I've ranted about the NYTB more than once to my friend the novelist and teacher Meredith Sue Willis, rants that she's once or twice seen fit to include in her monthly newsletter Books for Readers.

As to my action-packed weekend, the highlight was the amazingly wonderful 20th anniversary party that our friends Anya and Ignacio threw for my lover Teresa and me. They remade the Solidarity Center in Manhattan into a glittery, gorgeous, romantic party room and everyone had a grand old time. DJ Imani Henry kept us dancing for many hours past my usual bedtime. A memorable night. Then on Sunday we headed to Jackson Heights for the Dia de la Raza demonstration for immigrant rights, after which a bunch of folks had dinner together at Viva Zapata! restaurant. Delicious food and a decor punctuated with photos of Zapata, Villa and other heroes of the Mexican revolution. Zapata's stirring exhortation that "it is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees" is one of Teresa's favorite inspirational quotes.

Notwithstanding the virtues of uprightness, once we got home and crashed on the couch to watch a movie, I couldn't keep my eyes open. I was in bed and asleep by 9 p.m.

I am aware that I have yet to compose any cogent posts about the ostensible topic of this blog, red reading. I've set myself a deadline for doing so. The end of October. Or bust.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Coal camps and land grants

I googled around using the only part of the title I retained from those two books that caught my eye in the library yesterday--coal camp--and I found them. They look mighty interesting and certainly support the assertion that books by and about the working class do now and then make their way to publication; the challenge is finding out about them and getting your hands on them.

The books are COAL CAMP DAYS and COAL CAMP JUSTICE. Both novels are set in the mines of northern New Mexico in the 1940s. The author is Ricardo L. García, who, according to his listing at New Mexico University Press, "has spent 36 years as an educator beginning in Tierra Amarilla and Wagon Mound, New Mexico, as a high school English teacher."

This piques my interest even further. Tierra Amarilla was the site of a major struggle over land grant rights in the Chican@ movement of the 1960s. On our one truly splendid vacation, in 1992 in New Mexico, Teresa and I went there to see the courthouse where the Chican@ militants took their stand. During the drive she told me what happened there in 1967, and how it electrified young Chican@ radicals like her. I took a picture of her at the courthouse but who knows where it is. I do have this one of Teresa this past spring in Mexico City at a monument to the resistance to Cortes and the Spanish invaders.

Ricardo L. García's books are now on my to-read list.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

At the library

What an odd experience I just had. At, of all places, the library.

I am a lifelong habitue of public and school libraries. There is nowhere outside of home where I'm as comfortable, where I feel so sure a sense of belonging. In fact I've been known to take it to extremes. There have been many weeks, and even some single days, when I've gone, before work, on my lunch hour, and after work, to as many as three and sometimes even four libraries. There's the NYPL branch on Second Avenue at Ninth Street and there's the Jefferson Market branch on Sixth Avenue. There's the university library. And there are the Queens branch libraries in Sunnyside and Woodside. I love them all (and don't even get me started on my love for librarians) and I haunt them as much as I can, frequently losing control and tottering out with an unwieldy pile of books taller than I am. I have a system at home where I keep piles of books from the various libraries separate so I don't mix them up and return them to the wrong place.

So this was unexpected. As I got ready to take my lunch break today, I felt a surge of panicky horror at how unbearably long I've gone without reading a book (earlier posts explain why) and decided that, goddamn it all, this has got to end. Even if it means fumbling around with these generic magnifying specs I got at the drugstore that are totally not right, and even if it means getting a headache from wearing totally not right reading glasses until I get some real ones prescribed, enough is enough. I have got to read a book. I went to the library.

And it felt strange. Awkward as all get-out, like dinner with an ex a month after the breakup. I was nervous, physically a little shaky even. And I couldn't decide what books to take out.

This is barely credible, but believe it: once I'd gathered up a stack of five or six for checkout, I felt a strange fear wash over me that no, these are too many books, I need to start slow here and build back up at a careful, steady pace. WTF?! This is not an athlete needing to recoup her strength after a physical injury--this is me needing to read after not being able to for over a month! It was so very weird, watching myself winnow down the pile to just two that felt somehow safe, not too challenging, and ultimately chosen for their brevity and big print. Oy oy oy that it should come to this.

There are three abiding loves in my life. Teresa. The struggle for a better world. And books. Let's face it, there's been a breach with one of them that apparently will take some time to heal.

Here's a happier postscript. While I was roaming the fiction stacks I noticed two books with bold titles on their spines, both of which included the words "coal camp." One was something like "War in the Coal Camp" and the other something similar. In thrall to my bizarre timidity I didn't pick them up, and I forgot to even write down their titles or author so I'm going to have to do some searches to see if I can find them, but my antennae stood straight up. I hope soon to post some thoughts here about how to find books to please a red reader; this was a reminder that they are indeed out there, and many are hidden in plain sight. At the library.

UPDATE: Here's the punchline. I got onto the train to head home, put on the drugstore glasses, opened the book that I'd picked for its slimness, and realized within the first two paragraphs that it's a book I've already read.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Stories I'd like to read

It's not as if the world isn't rich with material for writers and readers like me. I wish I could read a novel about

  • Ziggy Klein, who was a beloved comrade of mine, a one-of-a-kind character whose likes I don't expect to ever meet again, a stalwart who fought the good fight till the day he died
  • Rubie Curl-Pinkins, who, backed by community, friends, family and supporters, fought off the predatory loan broker Countrywide's efforts to evict her from her Detroit home of 45 years
  • the thousands of immigrant workers jailed in the current wave of fascist-style ICE raids, and this coming Sunday's Dia de la Raza nationwide protests to defend them

My minimal program

It's my lunch hour and I'm thinking about red reading. Yearning for red reading. The longing arises out of both my monthlong (and possibly only halfway over) inability to read as I wait for my eyes to stabilize after cataract surgeries and my lifelong (adult life, anyway) search for quality fiction that either illuminates the class struggle or at least -- well, it's the at least aspect that I'll comment on for now.

Because really, I have pretty minimal requirements. I have to, or I'd have nothing to read at all. I generally read one to three books a week (all hail the New York City transit system, whose conductors, drivers, track crews, etc., do all the work while I sit with book in hand until suddenly I've arrived at wherever I'm going). Are all those one to three books, about three-quarters of which are fiction, stirring evocations of miners' strikes like Zola's Germinal, or of revolution like Gorky's Mother, or of struggling early-20th-century immigrants on the Lower East Side like Gold's Jews Without Money, or the criminal slave trade like Johnson's Middle Passage, or the subjugation of women like Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale? No indeed. I do not require that a book take one or another aspect of the struggle for justice as its explicit topic. I certainly don't require that it be explicitly about or on the side of the broader battle to build a socialist society.

All I ask of a work of fiction is that it not ignore these struggles, or the inequity and oppression that give rise to them. Sometimes, if the writing is enjoyable enough, I ask even less than that. Just don't take the other side. Don't offend.

Minimal, like I said. Shouldn't be hard to find books that fit the bill, right? Sadly, it is pretty damned difficult. For every book I read through to the end I'd say there are another three to five books that I start reading and then stop somewhere in the first 100 pages. Sometimes it's just the writing. Way too often it's the casual racism--I can't count the number of books I've slammed shut in disgust at some passage that mocks or stereotypes a person of color, often in just a sort of throwaway by-the-by aside that assumes the reader's complicity with the writer's world view--and almost every time that happens it's a book I picked up because it got a good review in the bourgeois press, which means the reviewer never noticed or didn't care about or shares the author's assumptions and attitudes. Many books have lost me when their male-centeredness became too much to bear. And yes, I do often get to the point where, no matter how great the writing, I just can't sit through another story of middle-class white angst, you know, the pain of divorce in the suburbs, of the middle-aged professor, of the banker who's lost his joie de vivre.

All I ask is good writing in the service of a story that tells the truth. I'll ramble some more about what I think it means for a novel to tell the truth in future posts. Also how and where to find such fiction.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Short form, long form

There's a gorgeous essay about the short story by Steven Millhauser in the Oct. 5 New York Times Book Review. Much of it compares the short form and the novel, with the former coming off as a sort of David to the latter's Goliath. And you know who won that fight.

As I read it I kept thinking of the working class and the ruling class. The one perpetually underestimated yet ultimately the holder of decisive power; the other apparently unvanquishable yet actually doomed to oblivion. There is in Millhauser's essay some exquisite writing about the short story's essence, its you might say calling, as the distiller of all the world's truth into the smallest possible kernel containing everything. That's the workers and oppressed, I thought, we hold the living world in our hands while the rich hold only its ruin.

But then I had to rein myself in. Wait a minute, I told myself, all this workers vs. bosses stuff has nothing to do with the comparison between short story and novel. Yes the short story has a nearly mystical potential for compressed vastness but that doesn't make it virtuous as opposed to the evil novel crushing all the life out of the universe with its horrid massive tentacles. I love the long form. It's what I mostly read. It's the form I've mostly worked in over the last 10 years. I've written one novel and I'm at work on another. I think the novel is a grand quest for writer and reader. A story may approach closer to perfection than a novel ever can. But I'm a sucker for a great big thick sprawling mess, drawing me along, brilliant sentence by brilliant sentence. A great story can be a perfect pearl. A great novel is a string of them.

So nah, there's no metaphor for the class struggle here. Only another reminder that, four weeks on after eye surgery and still some weeks away from getting new glasses, being unable to read a book is driving me nuts.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

C.B. & U.S.!

What I want to do is compose a lucid, concise posting about red reading. A series of lucid, concise postings about red reading. What I'm likely to do, what I already find myself doing, as a function of snatching small bits of time, or I'd like to think that's the primary explanation, is circling around the topic. Or maybe it's a more rectangular sort of approach. Coming at it from all sorts of oblique angles--what the hell does my cataract surgery have to do with it, for example--and managing to dart toward the core only occasionally. I hope my ramblings will intersect with my stated concern here, the red reading life, more and more frequently as I proceed. That is after all the point.

Which is my way of excusing myself for reporting that what I found myself thinking about while I ran errands on the first part of my lunch hour today was the novels of Chris Bachelder. His first novel, Bear vs. Shark, was great. His second, U.S.!, is the one that came to my mind as I walked. I was thinking about the capitalist economic crisis and the way that most politicians (with some notably courageous exceptions, including 21 members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Rep. Jose Serrano of the Bronx) are posturing as though their support for the bailout of the banks is really a vote for the working class. That is as patently demagogic as is the claim by a band of ultra-right Republicans that their fake opposition to the bailout is based on their deep concern for workers and the poor. Right. If you really wanted to save the homes and jobs of the working class you'd put the money (money which came from the workers in the first place) directly in their hands, and there are a load of ways the government could do this; you wouldn't offer it up to the same larcenous crew that created the crisis.

Anyway, as I thought about this, good old Upton Sinclair popped into my head. In 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, the writer most famous for his 1906 novel The Jungle ran for governor of California. He was a socialist and his platform was quite progressive, and he was drawing deep support among the suffering masses of people and well on his way to being elected until the right wing cooked up a red scare smear campaign against him that succeeded in dooming his candidacy. He never gave up, however, in his lifelong devotion to the cause of workers' rights. He wasn't an out and out red but he was pink enough and clear enough about it to be a rarity in the ranks of U.S. arts and letters. He lived a long life and wrote many more books, including the recently reissued Oil!, upon which the atrocious movie There Will Be Blood was supposedly based although it omitted the main thrust of the novel, which was about the oil workers' struggle.

Thinking about Upton Sinclair naturally made me wonder what Chris Bachelder is working on now. His novel U.S.!, in which Sinclair is repeatedly brought back to life to inspire and cheer on present-day fighters for social justice, is a wonderful, wonderful book, one of my all-time favorites. It's hilarious. It's poignant. Most important, it is shot through with hope.

Hope is one of the things I'll be touching on often. It's at the core of red reading and writing, I believe. Unlike so many young writers in this country, even those whose bent is relatively progressive, Bachelder builds fictive worlds where irony and cynicism have no purchase. His is a rare gift. I hope he's cooking up another offering for us to read soon.

Plus, when I emailed him a fan letter after I read U.S.! a couple years ago, he sent me a gracious reply that he signed "your comrade." Now that warms a red reader's heart.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Ready to go in October

Yesterday, a week and a day after the second surgery, the eye doctor gave me the okay to resume normal activities so this morning I was happy to finally get back to my morning yoga routine. As well as other aspects of my daily prepare-my-body-to-function regimen including one that was recently featured on Oprah and now, hilariously, is suddenly flying off the shelves at Walgreen's.

What a weird summer it was. The first part was unbelievably wonderful as I spent a month on a writing fellowship at the Saltonstall Foundation colony in Ithaca, NY. There I worked on my new novel. Then, what I'd meant to be a two-week writing hiatus, after which I planned to review what I'd done at the residency and get back to work, instead turned into a rest-of-the-summer medical leave of sorts. Not from wage work but from writing. First I hurt my back, bringing pain such as I've never before experienced. I had to keep going to work but that was all I could manage. It took a good six weeks until the back muscles fully healed. Then in the midst of that came the first and then the second cataract surgeries and the resultant vision difficulties. There've also been some family health issues to grapple with.

Now it's autumn. October. I feel almost normal again. Ready to write. Ready to--dying to--read as soon as I get me some glasses that work. Thinking about what kind of contribution a red reader and writer, and, now, blogger, can make at this moment of capitalist economic crisis that will soon be dumped onto the shoulders of the working class. And preparing to party next week when my comrade and lover Teresa and I celebrate our 20 years together.