Monday, December 29, 2008

A poem for Palestine

From all accounts yesterday's New York demonstration in solidarity with the people of Gaza against the murderous Israeli bombing assault was, although called at the last minute and held without a permit, strong and spirited, drawing 3,000 to 4,000 people to stand with Palestine. Now a new coalition of New York/New Jersey groups has been created. It's the Break the Siege on Gaza Coalition, and it has announced plans for another, bigger demonstration this coming Saturday, January 3. I'm hoping I'll be well enough by then to go. I feel awful about missing yesterday's protest. In the meantime, here's a statement by the youth group FIST on the Gaza crisis. And here's one from the International Action Center.

For a more literary take on the Palestinian struggle, check out the recent anthology Poets for Palestine. There's also the Arab-American literary journal Mizna.

Probably the greatest honor so far in my writing life is that Mizna published a poem of mine a few years ago. In lieu of my physical presence at the protests until I get over this flu, I'm reprinting it here, dedicated to the memory of the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who died this past summer and whose voice is sorely missed at this moment.


This is the Palestine poem I've needed to write for 30 years
to atone for cheering for Israel, '67, age 13. These are the lines
where I finally come clean: how I swallowed the tripe, even
as I grew, once I saw, I learned, once I'd heard about Deir Yassin.
I was scared to move, to cross the boundary from family, home,
all I knew, all they'd taught me it meant to be a Jew. That land
is ours, Mom said, given by God (in whom we don't believe);
it's safety, we need it, said Dad, after what we've been through,
it's ours by right, it's a guarantee. You can't change sides. They
threatened. They cried. They thundered: you'll kill us. You
won't be forgiven, they warned, you'll have torn us apart.
They said it would be a sort of suicide, a death of the self,
but they lied, and this is the poem where I tell the truth: that
massacre and theft disgrace my roots, that I claimed my future
by taking my stand with Palestine.

So this is the poem I owe--for the stolen land, for the
bulldozed homes, shattered bones, a nation scattered but
undiminished despite the blows. For Dearborn diaspora's rage,
for Right Bank slingshots, for elders who cling to keys
and dream of houses they were ousted from. For the
uprooted olive trees. This is the poem I have to write--
after curfews, checkpoints, the odious wall, after worst jobs,
insults, racist abuse, the buried babies and shortened lives--
these are the lines of sorrow and shame at the crimes that are
carried out in my name. This is the poem for Yafa, Ramallah,
Jerusalem, Jenin, for Nablus, Samakh, the towns that were
razed and those that remain. For these are the words of a
wandering Jew who dwells in the promise, the oath, the pledge,
the fist raised for the right of return, the shoulder against soldiers
rifles tanks. And this is my hand, my heart, my voice, the way
I chose and will never regret. And this is my vow to the cousins
who yearn for the beloved, unforgotten, unrelinquished place.
For the day that will come. For the great wrong reversed.
Yes, this is my duty. Yes, this is the poem it's an honor to write.
Yes, this is my love for Palestine.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Gaza & the weapon of literature

Stand with Gaza
Having barely emerged from my sickbed over the last few days I decided to check in on the world, only to discover the sickening, horrific news that today the Israeli settler state launched a series of murderous attacks on the Palestinian nation, bombing over 100 sites in Gaza. The initial death toll, mostly civilian, is 200, with 600 wounded. The massacre has of course generated immediate outrage--and rage--worldwide, and an upswelling of sympathy and solidarity for the suffering people of Palestine, who had already been enduring a brutal blockade in Gaza. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine has called for protest actions; I'm sure these will break out quickly. I'm sorry I'm too sick to attend the demonstration that will no doubt be called in New York, because I feel a special obligation as Jew to always disassociate myself from the criminal Zionist state and reiterate my loyalty to the oppressed people struggling for self-determination. Long live Palestine!

Update: Subsequent posts about Gaza and Palestine can be found here and here and here.

Christini on Winterson and Ngugi
In response to an item I posted last week about Jeanette Winterson, Tony Christini of A Practical Policy emailed me the following note, which I post with his permission:
Per usual, I've been continuing to keep up with your thoughtful weblog. Just wanted to note that while the Winterson quote is wonderful, litblog co-op has equally pithy quotes by Ngugi wa Thiong'o that go much further, in my view.

I really appreciated Winterson's novel The Passion, far and away her best fiction, to me, though I haven't read her recent fiction.

Ngugi's accurately self-described global epic novel from Africa, Wizard of the Crow (2006), is easily among the very best, most vital, most important works of contemporary fiction, rare, seems to me. As one Amazon reviewer noted, accurately I think, we would be lucky to have such a work from the U.S. I've written just a little about it thus far (some of which I may be reincorporating soon on my weblog). Such a work from the U.S. (or one that goes farther sociopolitically) would have to be fought for, I think, in a variety of ways.
Tony points us to his lengthy piece "Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel" for more of his thoughts on this.

Ngugi on the responsibility of literature
That Litblog Co-op item Tony referenced above includes a series of fascinating quotations from Ngugi wa Thiong'o. Here are two that really speak to me:
Fiction cannot be the agent of change. The people are the agent of change. All writers can do is really try to point out where things went wrong. They can do no more than that. But fiction should be firmly on the side of the oppressed. Fiction should firmly embody the aspirations and hopes of the majority--of the peasants and workers.


Literature is indeed a powerful weapon. I believe that we in Africa or anywhere else for that matter have to use literature deliberately and consciously as a weapon of struggle in two ways: 1) first, by trying as much as possible to correctly reflect the world of struggle in all its stark reality, and b) secondly, by weighting our sympathies on the side of those forces struggling against national and class oppression and exploitation, say, against the entire system of imperialism in the world today. I believe that the more conscious a writer is about the social forces at work in his society and in the world, the more effective he or she is likely to be as a writer. We writers must reject the bourgeois image of a writer as a mindless genius.

Thursday, December 25, 2008


Yesterday, the first day of my wintry week and a half off of work, I woke up sick. Goddammit! I'm all achey and fevery and congested, good for nothing but lying on the couch watching TV. What a way to waste my first few days off. My best friend, who's an elementary school teacher, told me she was sick last week for the start of her winter break too. It's famous, she said, that we in the education field get sick over the holidays. It's as if our bodies were holding out to the bitter end, then collapse as soon as they can. Well okay, sure, fine, but must I be included as "in the education field"? I'm a university secretary, not a teacher. The worst part is that I'd planned to start reading Toni Morrison's A Mercy. Now I have to put it off. I have to be alert and clearheaded to enter those pages.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Reminder: read African-American authors

Earlier this month I plugged "National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It to Somebody Not Black Month," the sort of tongue-in-cheek but mostly serious and definitely needed campaign initiated by author Carleen Brice. This is the final reminder. Go do it.

I will, except that the "somebody not Black" I'll be buying the books for is me. There are also a number of works by Latin@, Arab, Asian and African authors on my to-read list. Especially since it seems that the last couple books I've read were by whites, I'll be looking beyond the mirror as I head to the bookstore.

Bookstores, that is! Between my bosses and my family, this holiday season I snagged a major, major trove of bookstore gift certificates. When I close up the office this afternoon and begin my 12-day winter vacation (one of the few perks of working for a university), my first stop will be to start using them up. Then it's home to read.

To read! The other big gift I got from my job this year--presented with much hoopla at their annual holiday banquet--is a Palm Pilot. I've spent the last couple weekends entering data, trying to reorganize my life from datebook, phonebook, notepads, sticky notes, miscellaneous slips of paper, etc., consolidating it all in one centralized gadget. It's working, I think. Perhaps the most radical revision is my to-read list. It has now morphed from several crazily typed-and-scribbled-upon folded and refolded sheets of paper that I carry on my person at all times to a clean, neat and easily updated list that I still carry on my person at all times but can now call up, consult, revise with a touch to the screen. You can't read the titles because the cell-phone photo is fuzzy but this is a section of my to-read list pictured here.

Which I'd all along planned to post today, but now feels a little copy-catty because Maud Newton also has a photo of a reading-related gadget posted on her blog, though naturally hers is a sharper photo and a much more snazzy and expensive piece of technology. Her post is about reading novels on an I-Phone.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The inaugural poet

My ignorance about poetry is vast though I am trying bit by bit to correct that. In the meantime I must admit that I have not read any of the poetry of Elizabeth Alexander, who will read a specially written new poem at the inauguration of President Obama. I'm intrigued to see that one of her books of poetry is titled The Venus Hottentot, especially because Barbara Chase-Riboud's novel Hottentot Venus was one of the best books I read in 2008. The story of Sarah Baartman is excruciatingly sad, epitomizing much of the pain and horror of European colonialism in and racism toward the nations of Africa. I'm interested to read it through the prism of poetry.

As to her inaugural assignment, Ms. Alexander says:
This is a powerful moment in our history. The joy I feel is sober and profound because so much struggle and sacrifice have brought us to this day. And there is so much work to be done ahead of us. Poetry is not meant to cheer; rather, poetry challenges, and moves us toward transformation. Language distilled and artfully arranged shifts our experience of the words--and the worldviews--we live in.

Two from Tayari

Yesterday Tayari Jones posted a thoughtful piece headed "Time to Break the Mirror" on her blog. It's well worth reading for what she has to say about who reads what, who should read what, to whom books are marketed, to whom books should be marketed, all this with particular regard to literature by African American and women authors. Her take on these issues really resonates. I would so much rather be stretched, challenged, taken to new places, and, most of all, learn at least a little bit about what the world looks like and feels like to someone with a very different life experience than mine, than read something that merely reflects back my own limited consciousness. I agree with Tayari: reading should not be about looking in the mirror.

Speaking of mirrors: yikes! Thanks also to Tayari, I now realize how much what I see there has changed over the years. Here's my high school graduation photo, from 1972.
Embarrassing as it is to share this picture, it's for a good cause, rising to the challenge Tayari has posed to bloggers to support Girls Write Now! This organization pairs New York City high school girls with writing mentors. So here's a wee bit to help, across the miles and years from a nerdy hippie Detroiter of yesterday to hip New York writers in the making of today. Thank you, Tayari, for your generosity. I hope to help more with my own donation soon. Right now things are rough.

My employer is about to hit us with a new round of health benefit takebacks as of the new year; as one who's 36, going on 37, years past high school graduation I find myself awash in medical bills lately. My job is secure, I think, which is a lucky break in these tough times. If I can only keep my body functioning all will be well. As for you fresh young talents of Girls Write Now: write well! Write on!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

A few words from Jeanette Winterson

As far as I can tell, this isn't posted online so I can't link to it, but in today's New York Times Book Review the "Up Front" piece focuses on Jeanette Winterson, who reviews a novel in this issue. I like what she has to say about art and creativity and class.
Art is central to all our lives, not just the better-off and educated. I know that from my own story, and from the evidence of every child ever born--they all want to hear and to tell stories, to sing, to make music, to act out little dramas, to paint pictures, to make sculptures. This is born in and we breed it out. And then, when we have bred it out, we say that art is elitist, and at the same time we either fetishize art--the high prices, the jargon, the inaccessibility--or we ignore it. The truth is, artist or not, we are all born on the creative continuum, and that is a heritage and a birthright of all our lives."
Her review is wonderfully written, too. Time for me to revisit her novels. I've tried twice and somehow haven't been able to connect with her writing, bad lesbian reader though that makes me. Perhaps the third try will be the charm. I really really want to join the ranks of fans of her books.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Man, I'm sick of this

One of my unending and probably hopeless quests is to understand more about the natural world. From time to time I read a book that, in language supposed to be comprehensible by non-scientists, promises to teach me something about material reality. Physics, astronomy, geology, biology. The degree of success--that is, how much I actually do understand and, more important, retain--varies. When it comes to astrophysics, I sometimes get what I'm reading while I'm reading it, as with Simon Singh's very good book Big Bang, but a week or two after finishing the book I'm hard pressed to be able to explain much that I thought I'd learned. My best success comes in reading about evolution, which, not coincidentally, is the topic I find most fascinating of all. For the most part I really do get it (I think!). I thoroughly enjoy reading about it, and have for many years, from the days of the Leakeys' books about their work in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and Donald Johanson's books about the discovery of the 3-million-year-old hominid mother of us all whom he and his team dubbed Lucy (that's her below), to more

recent works including Richard Dawkins' The Ancestor's Tale (except for the disgusting anti-affirmative-action rant he felt compelled to include). Two summers ago I went back to the big daddy of them all, Charles Darwin, and read The Origin of Species, which to my surprise I found to be completely accessible, an extremely enjoyable, engrossing read.


With rare exceptions, science writers still refer to homo sapiens as "man." And so, even as I feel my mind expanding as I read these books, I'm also seething, cursing, gritting my teeth page by page. And I'm not just talking about old papa Darwin, writing 150 years ago. I'm talking, for example, about a book I just read, The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Is there any excuse for a book published in the year 2007 to characterize a species that consists of two sexes--that in fact is majority female--to call that species "man"? Hell no, there is not. What is wrong with these people?

Not all these people, thank goodness. Some writers of popular science books do nod to reality by referring to humans or people instead of man, and by not using male pronouns exclusively as a generic stand-in for our mostly female species. Best of all is the secular saint Natalie Angier, my favorite contemporary writer about the workings of the natural world. Ms. Angier is a science writer for the New York Times; whenever I see her byline, usually on a Tuesday in the Science Times section, I print out the story and take it home to savor over the weekend. I've read and loved two of her books, Woman: An Intimate Geography and The Canon. I find the way she thinks about and explains science very winning. Man, that's no lie.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Crab-Canning Ship Redux

Of the 70 posts thus far on my still quite new blog, the one that has generated the most hits is this one, from October, about the reviving popularity of the Japanese book The Crab-Canning Ship by communist author Takiji Kobayashi (seen at left), who was killed by the imperial government in the 1920s. Not only is Kobayashi's novel now a bestseller in Japan, but there is burgeoning worldwide interest. People from many countries have found their way to my blog after googling the book's title.

To all of you Nigerians, Koreans, Brazilians, Danes, Australians, etc., who are interested in reading this book, I have two words: me too! I've been having a hard time getting my hands on the English-language edition. It's long out of print, as far as I can tell. There's one used copy being offered online, but it costs $48 and that's out of my league. I thought the university library here had it, but when I found the book listed, it's actually not quite the same. This one is called The Cannery Boat By Takiji Kobayashi and Other Japanese Short Stories. Thoroughly perplexed now--is the short story that opens a collection some condensed version of the novel or what?--I went back into the library's online listings and discovered that this university does not in fact own a copy of the novel I'd been looking for, the edition published by UNESCO and the University of Tokyo Press. But I may be able to get my hands on it via inter-library loan from whichever other school does have it. I've put in my request. Now the wait.

If any of you others have any information on how to get the English edition of The Crab-Canning Ship, preferably how to buy it but not at exorbitant prices, please drop me an email at shelleyettinger AT yahoo DOT com and let me know. In turn I'll share whatever I hear here on the blog. Better yet, some smart indy press ought to come out with a new edition for the new era of working-class struggle that's in its opening stages.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Check 'em out

Here's a crop of zooming-toward-year's-end links:
  • Short fiction published online will now be eligible for inclusion in the annual Best American Short Stories. My first few years of publication were all online, including what I think is one of my best stories. I was too scared to submit to fancy-shmancy print journals. Actually, some of the online journals are very very good, have stringent editorial processes, and publish fine work, so this is a long overdue step. Now if only they'd change the title of the series--people from Caribbean, Central and South American nations consider it the worst kind of chauvinism when U.S. entities use the word "American" in an exclusive sense. The news on the BASS change came from Practicing Writing.
  • "Why are most of your stories so lifeless and irrelevant?" "Why do you mostly publish fiction by men?" "When you do occasionally publish something by a writer of color, why is it always accompanied by some weirdly exoticizing illustration?" Hey, these are just some examples off the top of my head. I'm sure you can come up with better questions for New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman. Go here to send them.
  • Finally, check out the lament of an "oilan," a sharp dig at U.S. imperialism by Tony Christini at A Pragmatic Policy. And while you're at it, go sign the petition demanding that the "Iraqi government"* set Muntader al-Zaidi, the shoe-throwing journalist, free.
*"Iraqi government" is so-called because Iraq is an occupied nation with a puppet apparatus fronting for the real rulers, the U.S. military.

Monday, December 15, 2008

José Sucuzhanay presente!

Because I was under the weather over the weekend, I didn't make it to yesterday's demonstration in Bushwick, Brooklyn, about the December 7 beating death of José Sucuzhanay by a group of men shouting anti-gay and anti-Latino slurs. Teresa went. She reports that a couple thousand people marched. It was less than a month ago that she went to Long Island for another march about another Ecuadoran immigrant who was beaten to death by a gang of youths.In his blog, poet Eduardo C. Corral points to a poem by C. Dale Young in the Spring 2004 Virginia Quarterly. The title is "Torn."

Farewell gift to a mass murderer

I am in awe at the courage of Iraqi journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi, who threw two shoes at George W. Bush at a Baghdad news conference yesterday. With the first throw he yelled, "This is a gift from the Iraqis; this is a farewell kiss, you dog!" With the second, "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq!"

Brother al-Zaidi is no doubt being tortured at this moment and we shouldn't be surprised if we soon hear he's dead. In contrast, the butcher of Baghdad (and before that, of Black and Latino prisoners on Texas' death row) will soon slink off to a cozy retirement. That's for now. The long view shows an accounting coming, down the road.

In the meantime, the shoe thrower's bravery has prompted an outpouring of anger at the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq throughout that country.

Friday, December 12, 2008

My year's best

I'm not very good at keeping up my books list over at -- I often forget to record books I've read, and I usually forget to note when I've read them or else enter the dates wrong -- so looking over my list of books there is a wholly unreliable way of finding out what I actually did read in 2008. Nevertheless I gave it a once-over, and it appears that I've read about 40 books so far this year. That's well below my usual. The shortfall is due to the nearly two months I mostly couldn't read after my cataract surgeries. What's not recorded is the depressing number of books that I start reading but don't finish. I think I'm getting harder to please as I get older, or maybe less patient, I don't know, but I do believe that on average I start and stop two to three books for every book I finish nowadays. (One result is that my books-read list on goodreads looks crazily skewed toward four- and three-star reviews; that's what happens when you only read through to the end if you're loving it or darned near.) Just these last two weeks I've already started and stopped three books, while I finished just one. I just can't force-read anymore. Lately my rule has become rather harsh: if I don't wake up first thing in the morning dying to get back to the book I was reading the night before, it's not worth returning to. Too cranky, right? But there are so many books and I've no time to waste on any that don't enthrall me.

Posting this is a bit premature as I can expect, barring some disaster, to read several more books this month, especially during the holiday break, and chances are high, I think, that a certain one of them will turn out to be the best book I read this year. I feel like doing this now, though, so here are my favorites among the books I think I read so far this year.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. I: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson
Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
Hottentot Venus by Barbara Chase-Riboud
The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
Wild Nights! by Joyce Carol Oates
Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake
The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr
Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas

The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier
My Life by Fidel Castro
Low-Wage Capitalism by Fred Goldstein

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Read Black, red readers!

Novelist Carleen Brice, whose book Orange Mint and Honey is on my to-read list, has been running a brilliant campaign calling on readers who are not Black to buy books by Black authors. She's dubbed December "National Buy a Book by a Black Author and Give It to Somebody Not Black Month." Now comes the video, which is funny and gently biting. Check it out, and then get to the bookstore and buy books by Black writers for all the readers on your gift list this holiday season.

Thank you to novelist Tayari Jones for reminding us, especially us whites, to get on board with this. It's something no red reader should need a nudge about, but consider this your nudge just in case.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

How cool is this!

I just bought Toni Morrison's new novel. I hadn't rushed to get it because I knew I wouldn't be able to read it until at least the holiday break, but today I just couldn't wait any longer so I went and got it on my lunch hour. And wow! Lookee here! Okay, I know it's a horribly fuzzy cell phone picture, but that's Toni Morrison's autograph on the inside cover! I somehow lucked out and got a copy that she'd signed!

(I took off the book jacket and laid it on top of the opened book for authenticity or something. Never said I had any visual design sense.)

Three for four

A short story of mine was just accepted for publication by Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry. I'm very happy, both to be published in a lit mag of this caliber, and because that makes three story acceptances this year, all by high quality journals. In fact, this means that three out of the four stories I sent out this year are in the pipeline for publication, with only one still dangling. Nice.

The story Nimrod will publish was a risky one for me to write, a real stretch. When the publication date approaches I'll go into more detail about how and why.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The start of something big

My attention is naturally drawn from fiction to the real world when sisters and brothers like these take action to rewrite the plot dictated by the banks and corporations. As most people know by now, the mostly Latin@ workers at Republic Windows and Doors have been occupying their Chicago workplace since Friday night in a fight to defend their jobs and wages against the company and its backer, Bank of America, which would together have summarily shut the plant and stolen the wages and benefits due. Company after company simply ignores the federal law requiring 60 days' notice before a plant closing. This time the workers, members of UE Local 1110, decided to enforce the law themselves.

For ongoing updates as this struggle unfolds, check out this UE site. For information about nationwide demonstrations against Bank of America set for tomorrow, December 10, go here.

A book I recently read and have plugged several times here, Low-Wage Capitalism, has a whole section about the tactics that are necessary in this period, and prime among them are sit-down strikes and plant occupations of the sort we haven't seen since the 1930s--until now. Workers owe a big thank you to the women and men who have led the way by taking over Republic Windows. This could be the start of something big!

Meanwhile, a broader news watch is in order, too. The governor of Illinois has been arrested for corruption. Irrespective of the substance of the case, can the timing possibly be unrelated to the Republic plant occupation? He was arrested immediately after taking a surprisingly strong stand in support of the workers and announcing that he was canceling all state of Illinois business with Bank of America.

Monday, December 8, 2008

"You were always among us"

This past Friday evening I was walking up Fifth Avenue just above 14th Street when I recognized Sean Ono Lennon as he walked past me, talking on a cell phone. I was immediately transported to memories of my youth, much of which I lived to the soundtrack of his father's--and his mother's--music and words. He looks so much like his father it's uncanny. And now today, December 8, is the 28th anniversary of the killing of John Lennon.

My story "John and Yoko and Rowena and Me" is due to be published any day now in the Fall 2008 issue of Cream City Review. It's a first-person fiction but, although it's set in Detroit and later New York and although the main characters are my age, it is not autobiographical. Unlike the main character of this story, who has moved to New York and rushes up to the Dakota to stand vigil the night John dies, I was a bus driver in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I remember that I worked an afternoon run that day and I didn't get home until after 11 p.m. Almost as soon as I walked in the door, the phone rang -- remember, no cell phones back then so you weren't in constant contact with everyone the way you are now -- and it was my best friend telling me that John was dead. I remember being surprised at how upset I was.

There is what from all accounts is a lovely spot called John Lennon Park in Havana, Cuba, where folks sit with this statue. At the dedication ceremony in 2000, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon gave a touching speech about the hopes and dreams of the 60s generation. "Dear John," he said, "you were always among us."

A working-class hero is something to be.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Mountaintop removal & publishing consolidation

Pretty soon I may post a list of my favorite books of the year. By which I mean my year, the books I read in 2008, not books published this year. Between waiting for them to become available at the library and/or waiting for them to come out in paperback, it's rare that I get to read a book hot off the press. Anyway, one of my absolute top reads this year was Strange As This Weather Has Been by Ann Pancake.

I was reminded of this wonderful novel by an alarming story in yesterday's New York Times. It seems that the horror show of last-minute rule changes the Bush administration is rushing to add to its eight-year-long list of atrocities includes a rule that, according to the Times, "gives coal companies a legal right to do what, in the past, they could do only in exceptional circumstances." The rule will facilitate and encourage the coal industry's horrific move toward wholesale mountaintop removal--that's right, mountaintop removal, where coal companies simply blast off the entire top of a mountain to get at the coal underneath--by permitting the resultant toxic runoff to bury valleys and destroy rivers and streams.

Pancake's novel is a wonderful example of how fiction can raise readers' consciousness and even, one hopes, move them to action. It's about a family in the West Virginia coal country whose lives are disrupted, devastated, by mountaintop removal. The wrenching story opened my eyes about how people's health and the beautiful green hills are being destroyed and moved me to learn more about the ongoing struggle to stop Big Coal. The novel is an example of something else, too: how political fiction can rise to the absolute highest reaches of art. What Ann Pancake does with language is a new and beautiful thing.

For more about how communities are organizing against mountaintop removal, this website is a start.

Meanwhile, in Manhattan...

The landscape may be the glass canyons of New York, not the mountains of Appalachia, but there's plenty of wreckage draining down the city's streets this week in the wake of an orgy of restructuring in the publishing industry. For a blow-by-blow of at least the most evident of the carnage--editors sacked, imprints erased, authors in limbo--the blogs Moby Lives and MediaBistro/Galleycat are good starting places. It's not easy, however, to find the true extent of the bloodletting, by which I mean the layoffs and wage cuts and benefit takebacks affecting the thousandfold work force that includes not only those who sit at desks in the skyscrapers but also those who manufacture and distribute and sell the books and for that matter those who cut the trees and process the paper and also all the related low-wage high-tech workers in cities like Bangalore and Manila to whom much of the labor is no doubt being shifted. Yet it's not hard to see what's happening. This is an industry that had already spent much of the last two decades consolidating. Hence company names like Houghton Miflin Harcourt. Hence every imprint from Doubleday to Knopf to Crown to Shocken actually being part of the monster that is Random House. Hence every previous wave of layoffs and cuts.

The only raison d'etre for any capitalist enterprise is profit. The only means to profit is by exploiting labor. In a time of financial crisis brought about by overproduction, in publishing as in every other industry, the only option to maintain profitability is to ramp up the level of exploitation. Fewer workers doing more. Squeeze 'em for every penny.

The spectacle du jour is the Big Three auto CEOs (with their loyal lackey Ron Gettelfinger at their sides) demanding their due on Capitol Hill. Tomorrow, who knows, it might be the book biz's biggies. If he were still alive, would the sainted Bennett Cerf be dancing to big money's tune? He'd have to, or be out of a job.

We've lost another giant

Odetta, one of the great political artists of our time, has died.

A comrade reminds me that in early 1981 she performed at a benefit at the Village Gate to raise funds for the first mobilization against the Reagan presidency, the May 3 march on the Pentagon against U.S. intervention in El Salvador and to defend Atlanta's children. She also supported the protests against the first Iraq war in 1990-91. Those of course are just two in a lifetime of contributions to the cause of freedom and justice, from championing the blues as the musical expression of the African American experience to leafletting to defend the Rosenbergs to performing at the 1963 March on Washington for civil rights to singing with Paul Robeson.

Thank you, sister Odetta, for your life well lived.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Blogging is weird

If this were a more elegant (meaning not free) blog, there'd no doubt be a better way to design it, but as it is, with the latest entry piggybacking on top of the previous one, the effect is that whoever comes at it reads from the top down. Which makes for some weird mood swings, doesn't it? I guess I'm noting this here because I just looked at it and it appeared to me that I must be the most frivolous person in the world, first writing about possibly the most serious topic, AIDS, and then, tra-la-la, following with a goofy post about a goofy gift item. Of course that's not how it went at all, chronologically speaking. I wrote the goofy post late last night and the serious one this afternoon. (I could include the time of postings but that creeps me out like some stranger out there is tracking my every move.) But there it is. Insert here some profound comment about life's extremes.

World AIDS Day

I haven't read it carefully yet, but this looks like an interesting and possibly worthwhile article about the state of the AIDS crisis and of AIDS activism, 20 years after the first World AIDS Day. I remember walking down Christopher Street holding candles that first December 1, thinking about Bill and Marshall who were, if I'm remembering right, at that point the only friends of mine who'd died of AIDS. By a couple years later the number had multiplied and the struggle had intensified. By now, 20 years later, AIDS has killed more than 25 million people, somewhere around 35 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, and in Africa, hardest hit of all, there are now 11.6 million AIDS orphans.

Remember, this is a preventable disease, and, increasingly a treatable one for those with access to lifesaving drugs--meaning those who can afford them. In Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribean (except Cuba, where there's free quality health care for all, and where a scientifically sound, nondiscrimatory policy instituted back in the early days made it the only country where the epidemic never got a foothold), and in the U.S. as well, especially in communities of color, approximately 6.7 million people are at imminent risk of death if they can't get treatment.

More than ever, the whole world round, the demand has to be: Make the greedy pharmaceutical companies free up the drugs! Make the Pentagon pay! Money to fight AIDS, not for imperialist wars!

(Statistics from UNAIDS/WHO as of July 2008)

How about them "apples"?

Speaking of how capitalism pushes commodities nobody needs and convinces everyone they need them: I can't decide if this is incredibly cheesy or something I simply must have.

elegant A Life Well Read “box set”

Yes I can. It's cheesy. It's not for me. And yet ... I'm drawn to it like gravy to mashed potatoes. It isn't even practical. My reading life is too messy, too sprawing and uncontainable for a container such as this. More to the point, let me be honest, I'm far too highminded a literary snob for the likes of this item, which is so so wrong in so many ways. And yet ... and yet ... something about it calls out to my inner 10-year-old madly pasting book stickers onto the library's summer reading contest log form.

Bottom line: the marketers have shot themselves in the foot. I will never respond to an ad that includes "box set." First of all, it's boxed, not box. And second, who are they quoting? Or are those ironical quotation marks, like, yeah, right, so-called box set. Methinks not. Worst of all, later on in the promotion, this item is dubbed "truly unique." Oh dear. Now they've really ticked me off.

For yes, I am the daughter of an English teacher, and yes I refuse to buy apples in the supermarket if the sign says "apples," and yes I cringe when anyone uses a modifier with the word unique, and yes I admit again I'm a book snob and no I'm not proud of it and no I don't think I'm better than anyone who will buy this product and still no I won't buy and yet no I won't refuse it if some misguided but loving family member gives it to me as an Xmas present and yes I'll smile and utter sincere thanks and yes my inner summer-reading-contest-winner might just jump for joy.