Sunday, December 27, 2009

Consuela Lee

I hadn't intended to blog during the holidays, but sometimes life happens and attention must be paid. Yesterday evening Consuela Lee, musician, composer, teacher and tireless advocate of arts education for African American youths, died at age 83. Pianist, scholar, inspiration, as well as creator of the musical scores for several of the films of her nephew Spike Lee, she will be dearly missed.

She deserves great tribute, and I'm sure it will be forthcoming from many quarters in the weeks and months ahead. For now, today, her family, friends, admirers and former students, so many of whom say she changed their lives, are simply mourning the loss. All my love and sympathy go to my friend Monica Moorehead on the loss of her mother, the remarkable Consuela Lee.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

See you on the other side

The university closes early today, and doesn't reopen until after the new year. Hooray and hoorah!

With a few exceptions both political (this Sunday's march in solidarity with the people of Gaza) and social (a movie or two, a new year's eve party), I'll be reading and writing for the next 11 days. The reading will be a joy, especially because I've got a nice pile to pick from after I finish the book I'm currently reading, which is Joyce Carol Oates' latest novel and is very very good, better in my opinion than her last couple. I'm also quite pumped about getting some serious writing time; I'll be returning to my novel in progress, which I'd shamefully let lie fallow for a while but am now excited to get moving on again.

I don't expect I'll get to this book for a while, certainly not during the holiday break, but it's caught my interest, especially as I'm about to embark on an intense reading bloc. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf. Although it's always necessary to take a leery approach to any of this evolutionary biology stuff, drenched in bourgeois ideology as most of it is and deeply political as it is despite all disclaimers, still I keep getting drawn to books like this. Earlier this week the Christian Science Monitor interviewed Wolf for a piece about the differences between e-reading and book reading--the differences in your brain, that is--and it looks like she made some interesting points. I've printed it out to read during the break.

What I won't do, if the days go as I hope, is blog. For the next 11 days I intend to turn on my computer only to write. Can I pull it off? Who knows. Wish me luck. And I in turn wish you rest, warmth, renewal, and good reading in 2010. See you on the other side.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Link-ish

Blogger has been messing with me. I'm very frustrated because after having just cooked up a nice posting with about eight links and comments and posting it, I thought, it has disappeared. I don't have time to recreate it. So here's a shorthand version--if any of it interests anyone, you can google to find the links yourself. Sorry.

Garrison Keillor may have been joking but his meanspirited anti-Semitic rant in the Baltimore Post last week was not funny. I feel sorry for all the Upper West Side NPR devotees.

Kool & the Gang played Havana yesterday. Celebrate good times!

African American activists have issued a "We Stand With Cuba" proclamation, via the Pan African News Service.

Sign up to commit to read books by authors of the African diaspora in 2010.

Is Avatar one more self-serving fantasy of a white savior leading a Native fightback, or a story of bravery and solidarity a la John Brown? Debate rages.

In today's New York Times, Natalie Angier, my favorite popular science writer, takes on Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals and the case that whether it has a face is the proper criterion for what living things we should eat. Plants too have vibrant lives and want to stay alive, she says.

Mexico City has legalized same-sex marriage. Teresa and I haven't managed to cross the border into Connecticut to make the government recognize us, so I don't know why I'm now fantasizing about making a much longer trip, but I am.

No disrespect to Jeanette Winterson, but her review of a new biography of Patricia Highsmith in this past Sunday's New York Times Book Review epitomizes the non-review approach of that organ. She wrote a lively, informative biographical essay about Highsmith, but there are only a couple sentences tacked on at the end about the book supposedly under review.

Finally, today is my mother's birthday. She would have been 88. Last Mother's Day I wrote this about her.

Monday, December 21, 2009

My meshugenah movies list

I read far more books than I see movies ... and I am on far shakier grounds commenting on film than on literature ... but despite all that I decided just for the fun of it to put together a list of movies from the first decade of the 21st century that I have opinions about. We've started making plans for our annual Oscar-watching party, and my holiday break starts soon during which I should get to see a movie or two, and both got me thinking about the recent era in film. You'll see that it's all over the map, ranging from political/historical to Hollywood goofy. It's no doubt highly flawed in all sorts of ways but here I go wading in.

Faves: About A Boy, Across the Universe, Adaptation, A.I., Ali, Atonement, Be Kind Rewind, Best In Show, Bloody Sunday, Chuck and Buck, City of God, A Cock And Bull Story, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Dreamgirls, Elf, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Fast Food Nation, For Your Consideration, Girlfight, The Golden Compass, Gosford Park, The Great Debaters, I Really Hate My Job, Infamous, In the Valley of Elah, Lagaan, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Lumumba, The Motorcyle Diaries, Mr. Bean's Holiday, Milk, O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Others, Pan's Labyrinth, The Quiet American, Paradise Now, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Requiem For A Dream, Shaun Of The Dead, Trouble The Water, The U.S. Vs. John Lennon, V For Vendetta, Vera Drake, Walk Hard The Dewey Cox Story, Whale Rider, The Wind That Shakes The Barley

Mixed feelings: Brokeback Mountain, Chicago, Crash, Dogville, Doubt, Frida, High School Musical, Hustle & Flow, Moulin Rouge

To see/high hopes. Of course I haven't seen most movies that came out. My Netflix list is impossibly long and since we switched to one movie at a time to save money we're going through it even slower than before. But these are a few high on the to-see list: Amores Perros, Billy Elliot, Dancer In The Dark, The Laramie Project, Lilya 4Ever, Maria Full of Grace, Under The Same Moon

Worst. Well yeah most movies are awful, but these I feel deserve special notice because they were reactionary in one way or another, were box-office hits, and/or received high praise of which they were deeply undeserving: A Beautiful Mind, Black Hawk Down, The Constant Gardener, The Dark Knight, The Fountain, Gangs Of New York, Gladiator, I Heart Huckabees, Juno, Knocked Up, The Last Samurai, The Lives Of Others, Munich, Stranger Than Fiction, Synecdoche NY, Talk To Her, There Will Be Blood, Vanilla Sky, Waltz With Bashir, When Darkness Falls, Zoolander

Finally, special notice to a film that was in pretty much every respect a train wreck and yet was oddly enjoyable: Mamma Mia.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Big issues: one more JCO note

A final brief point about Joyce Carol Oates. She takes on big topics. I was thinking about this in light of her strange status, at once lauded and derided, and the fact that she's won many accolades yet never the two that are arguably the biggest in the literary establishment's eyes, that is, the Pulitzer and Nobel. It leads back to my suspicion that there's a deep sexism at work here.

With some regularity one or another major literary organization comes out with an annual best books or finalists list and it occasions anger and denunciations because the list has either no books by women or very few. Most recently, in November Publishers Weekly issued a 10 Best Books of the Year list with not a single one written by a woman. The defense, when some clueless dolt decides to issue one, is usually a variation on one or both of two arguments. There's the "we didn't take sex into consideration, we just picked the best books, sorry, not our fault that men wrote all the best books" shoulder shrug. This one is so brazen in its arrogance and mendacity that it's been thoroughly rebutted by many commenters. The other argument is even more revealing. It's that "men write important books that take on Big Topics, novels by men range widely over the Big Wide World and delve deeply into the Big Complex Issues, while women write books about feelings and family and hearth and home, novels by women are narrow in focus, small in scope, unconcerned with the largeness, messiness, vastness of humanity, history and ideas."

Uh huh. Well then, what about Joyce Carol Oates? The entire proposition about this supposed difference between male and female novelists is of course utterly specious and it too has been refuted effectively many times. My purpose here is to simply point to one specific example that in itself reveals the misogyny at its base. Because if its proponents believed their own point, that the Great Novel takes on Big Issues, then they'd have long since bowed down to JCO, whose books are nothing if not engaged with the vast messy world, and anointed her the paragon of the Great Novelist. That they have not speaks volumes, both about their sexist hypocrisy in general and about their sexist disregard in particular for one of the greatest writers of our time.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Part 2 on the amazing Joyce Carol Oates

Look. Joyce Carol Oates is a famous, successful, acclaimed writer. She doesn't need anyone sticking up for her, certainly not little old me.

Or does she?

The answer starts, just as the first installment of my appreciation did, with the tally. The woman is a writing machine. With over a hundred published books and countless more essays, reviews, talks and so on, it's hard to imagine that she does anything other than write. We know she does, though. She teaches. She recently remarried after her husband of 40-plus years, Raymond Smith, died, so she must have at least some semblance of a life with relationships and social interaction and so on. She watches, or at least keeps up with, movies and TV, which we know from her obvious familiarity with popular culture. She must sleep. So no, she's not a machine. She's a human being, just an incredibly productive one. And excruciatingly talented.

Yet it is the first attribute, her productivity, that seems to get most of the attention. Not only is the second, more important one, her talent, increasingly less interesting, apparently, to the commentators--but worse, it is more discounted the more she publishes. How can this be? Why is she the object of ridicule, some of it lighthearted but much of it mean-spirited, dismissive--why?

I think it's because she's a woman. It pains me to draw this conclusion but there's no other I can see. If a male writer had published as much serious literature as she has (is there such a one? I wish I could think of one so I could look at how he's treated and determine whether I'm right)--if a male writer were this enormously prolific, churning out book after book, more than one a masterpiece, many wonderful, some merely good, and some not so hot, he would not, I believe, be the butt of jokes the way Joyce Carol Oates is. He would have long since won the Pulitzer Prize for one or another of his masterpieces, which she has not. He would have probably by now won the Nobel Prize for his magnificent body of work, which she has not. He would, in any case, be a role model, a paragon. The Great Writer. Instead of being regarded, as she often seems to be, as a little bit creepy, more than a little bit scary-weird, someone whose achievements are twisted into somehow themselves being evidence of her not-quite-greatness.

She compounds the offense, I think, by honing in so frequently, and with such depth, upon the female experience. Bad enough she's a woman, does she have to write constantly about all that yucky stuff too?

Then there's class. I know she is more or less an establishment figure, I know of no evidence that she subscribes to the socialist idea. She's not a comrade. But, in a country where we'd have very little to read if we waited for communist fiction to fall into our hands, she is the next best thing: a writer who tells the truth. Including--no, especially--the class truth. And when the class truth is told by a storyteller endowed with this vast an imaginative sweep, this deep an empathetic capacity, this keen a perception of social reality, when the reader is in the hands of this gifted a master, the experience is remarkable.

Dare I suggest that this too contributes to her strange doubled status in the literary world, at once respected and distrusted? That she wades in to the bloody awful mess of this society way way too deeply? Goddamn, it's just not ladylike! All this delving into all this rotting stinking shit we live in!

They're not all home runs, as I said last week. I just finished reading her 1980 novel Bellefleur and I wasn't crazy about it. In fact I'd say it's a mess. For me, while sentence by sentence and page by page it held my interest as her writing always does (I mean, there was never a question of not finishing it), it did not cohere as a whole, nor did it involve me viscerally. But it's interesting: there is no consensus, even on this novel that struck me as one of her more flawed efforts. I looked at some of the reader comments on Amazon, and while there are some who panned it there are also many who gave it four stars, called it a work of genius, one who even asserted it is the greatest novel ever written. I also skimmed the original New York Times Book Review assessment, by none other than John Gardner; while he criticized it mightily, he also wrote, "Whatever its faults, Bellefleur is simply brilliant."

I also did not love her 1969 novel Them, which is often cited as one of her greatest. I simply was not drawn into it the way I wanted to be. On the other hand, as someone originally from Detroit I have to say that in my opinion her take in this novel on the 1967 Black rebellion, which she approaches from the vantage point of a poor white family, is a thousand times truer, more honest, less cynical approach to that event than the skewed, slanderous white suburbanite's view of the rebellion presented in the more recent novel Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

There've been other of her novels that I wouldn't necessarily recommend to friends. There have also been novels that I've liked but not loved. The Gravedigger's Daughter and My Sister My Love, to name two recent examples.

As for masterpieces ... last week I rhapsodized about Blonde. I'm running out of steam so I'm afraid The Falls gets short shrift, but I can't stop before taking note of it. This too is a brilliant, wonderful, necessary book. I've alluded only slightly to the actual contours of JCO's writing, perhaps because I feel unequal to the task of analyzing how she does what she does with the English language, but her gift is on full display in this powerful novel that has to do with the tragedy of Love Canal. As are her powers of political perception.

Now then. I'd been meaning to write about Joyce Carol Oates for a while. Recently I got an oomph to do so when my friend the novelist and teacher Meredith Sue Willis wrote something about Oates, or at any rate one of Oates' books, in her newsletter Books for Readers (scroll down to issue #123). Sue had just read Because It Is Bitter and Because It Is My Heart (which I have not read), and she'd also just read a novel by the bestseller list denizen Jodi Picoult, and she said that both writers have a "sense of entitlement that leads them to dip into places they haven't bothered to imagine fully." Well! Of all things! First I was flabbergasted at the suggestion that Oates even writes in the same universe as Picoult. More important, I couldn't imagine reading a JCO book that felt only partially imagined. I can't fault Sue for her specific critique since I haven't read this novel and who knows, perhaps Because It Is Bitter is one of Oates' worst--but I can say that if there's one thing Joyce Carol Oates can do and usually does, it's to fully imagine the worlds she creates.

Here's the thing. I always trust a Joyce Carol Oates book. I will read any novel she writes, and I doubt very much that I will ever start one that I don't want to finish. The vast majority I have yet to read; I think I've read only 12 or 13. I look forward to making my way through her oeuvre book by book. I trust her. I think she is brilliant, and that her brilliance at times reaches genius.

Does she need sticking up for by the likes of me? Maybe not, but I have to make the record. Because in a literary landscape mined with racist, sexist, anti-worker crap, her work is an oasis of the true, the real, the beautiful ugly art a red reader seeks.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

OK, she's not Michael ...

... but damn, she's feeling it!

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Sterling Publishing has brought out a 40th anniversary edition of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Dee Brown's momentous correction of what was then, and mostly still is, the standard version of U.S. history.

Native journalist Tim Giago has an appreciation up today at Huffington Post.
The history of Wounded Knee is not such an ancient one to the Lakota people of 2009. Many Lakota living today had grandparents at Wounded Knee and some of them died there.
The ongoing incarceration of Native activist Leonard Peltier, behind bars for 34 years now for murders of which he is manifestly innocent, is but one illustration of the ongoing relevance of Dee Brown's book.

I think I read it in high school, soon after it first came out. I need to read it again. This new edition looks excellent. If that faculty committee that usually gives me a bookstore gift certificate for the holidays comes through again this year, I'm going to give it to myself.

(Thanks to Moby Lives for the links.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Walter Trochez presente!

Another murder by the U.S.-backed thugs who have held the nation of Honduras siege since June. On Sunday the golpistas' death squad goons assassinated Walter Trochez, a courageous gay activist, leader of the Honduran LGBT community, and stalwart of the National Resistance Front against the golpistas. Nine days earlier they'd kidnapped and beaten him, but he escaped and spoke out even more loudly. Now this.

Details here, direct from the Resistance. Also here, here, and here; these last three are variations on the same report, but some also have various comments from folks who knew and worked with Walter in Honduras.

And what is the U.S. government's take on all this? The U.S. government whose military base was the first spot to which the golpistas transported the rightfully elected president, Manuel Zelaya, when they kidnapped him in June? Well, last month, W. Louis Anselem, President Obama's envoy to the Organization of American States charged with talks on Honduras, had this to say about the plans by the vast majority of Hondurans to boycott the fraudulent Nov. 29 elections: "I'm not trying to be a wiseguy, but what does that mean ... in the real world, not in the world of magical realism?"

U.S. imperialism, neocolonialism, supercilious cultural racism: there it all is, in a nutshell. And now, in the real world, Walter Trochez has died. As have the nine other gay and trans people recently killed by the coup regime, and the scores of others mowed down for refusing to accept the overturning of democracy in their country. In an open letter last month, Walter Trochez wrote, "As a revolutionary, I will always defend my people, even if it takes my life."

Walter Trochez, presente!

Go Justin!

Justin Torres, who's so gifted a writer that it's really unfair, is a 2009 recipient of the United States Artists award. This is a newish award -- I believe it's only the second year it's been given out -- that is funded, according to the website, by several foundations endowed by rich people. Well good. They stole every penny they have, and while handing it out as they choose to individuals they deem worthy isn't exactly the redistribution of wealth the world needs, I know it's a welcome boost to the artists chosen, and it does look like the panels that decide how to hand out this particular prize have a fairly decent approach. Here's this year's list of recipients.

As for Justin, who I've mentioned before on this blog, he's a terrifically talented fiction writer who's just about to burst onto the scene. Well, he's kind of in the process already of bursting onto the scene, as this award indicates. He's been publishing stories for a few years now, and his first book is coming soon, I hope. In a publishing world where such a thing is rare, the occasion when a writer like Justin gets his due recognition is heartening. A gay Latino, a son of the working class, someone who has struggled in life, someone whose writing expresses all this and more. I met Justin two years ago at the Lambda Literary Foundation's first LGBT writers' retreat. I'm very fond of him and although I've only seen him briefly once or twice since I feel as proud as if he were my own younger brother. Oy, such naches!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

If yer buyin stuff right about now

I'm mostly not this year. Except that we've got a brand new extremely adorable grand-nephew who, although I haven't been able to get to Texas to meet, I thoroughly enjoy joining Teresa in sending gifts to.

Still, there's time yet ... if past years are any gauge, I'll probably soon break down and decide I've just got to gift some grownups too. When I do, here's where I'll head. Fast delivery, I'm told, is guaranteed.

RadicalJack.com is the hot spot for political tee-shirts, posters, buttons and the like. There's some really great looking stuff here, much of it the work of my Miami comrade Mike Martinez.

Then there's Leftbooks.comfor books,
calendars, music, cards and more. This outfit is run by my comrades, too, these in Los Angeles.

If you feel the pull toward gift-giving during the holiday season, and what the hell there's no shame in that, you'd be a purer soul than I if you were able to resist it, please do consider making some of your purchases from RadicalJack and Leftbooks.
Both these online stores are at once labors of love and funding sources, albeit modest, for the struggle.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

I wonder if Babs and the Jennifers were watching

There are much much more important things happening in the world--not least that the Baltimore police arrested two of my comrades yesterday morning on frame-up charges designed to crush their activism--and the last thing I want to do is give props to the evil Fox Corp.--and this is a lit blog, not a TV blog. But. But. But. I am, as I believe I've confessed before, a musical theater dweeb. And I do watch TV. So.

Oh. My. God. Did you see Glee last night?

First, early on, the amazingly gifted Amber Riley finally got to step front and center. She delivered, and how! She belted out a fabulous version of "And I Am Telling You" from Dreamgirls. Those are some awe-inspiring shoes to step into, the two Jennifers', but I thought she did a smash-up job. Wow.

This show is in my opinion not all it's cracked up to be. It has many flaws, not least in its treatment of the national question, of which last night's episode was a prime example. But. The fact that there's now one hour of TV every week when I can tune in and, most weeks at least, be assured of watching and listening to a fresh new version of some Broadway standard, well, it just makes me happy.

So there I was, cocooned in a lovely glow, watching the rest of the episode unfurl. And then. Oh. My. God. To. The. Max. Three opening notes sound--three opening notes that I instantly recognize--a silly crazy scream of joy erupts out of my throat--goose bumps prickle up and down my arms--and the darling Lea Michele steps up and sings "Don't Rain On My Parade" from Funny Girl. Goddamn. She pulled it off, too. And then some.

This morning in the shower I found myself belting, "Hey Mr. Arnstein, here I am!" Um. Yes, yes I did. And wondering whether a Broadway revival of Funny Girl, until now inconceivable because Babs so owned the title role, might now be a possibility.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The unselected quality of her selection

It's a yucky day hereabouts, rainy, windy, cold, already dusky long hours before dusk, and I got in to work late partly by design because I worked late last night and partly because of the weather and the havoc it played with the trains, and I had one of those truly crappy, uniquely New Yorkly crappy mornings -- umbrella fell apart in the first few blocks of walking to the train and I got thoroughly soaked, then on the train after a homeless man came through asking for money or food two people sitting near me started a loud conversation of reactionary bullshit about what a fine coat he had and how he certainly doesn't need to beg and so yes I had to get in a fight with them because right there's no unemployment crisis and right people come through the trains making their sad little speeches asking for pennies because it's fun and they're lazy, then I had to get up and move away to try to settle down and I found an empty seat but no it was full of a great massed pile of fresh vomit! -- yes, a yucky day, wouldn't you say? I don't believe a real lunch break is in the offing so this won't be the day I get to part two of my Joyce Carol Oates encomium. That'll have to wait. What I will do in the interim here is reproduce in full the paragraph from which we usually only see a sentence or two, the paragraph in a 1937 letter from Thomas Wolfe to F. Scott Fitzgerald in which Wolfe, in response to Fitzgerald's criticism of his work, argues that it is not just the taker-outers who write great books. I was thinking about this question of taking out vs. putting in because Oates is for the most part a putter-inner. Many of her novels feature passages that are replete with great rambling serpentine sentences whose rhythm you have to catch and ride if you're to enter the narrative successfully, and furthermore the novels themselves, not all of them but the best, are large of scope, have a great sweep. I think all of this is why some people have trouble reading her. I also think it's central to her greatness. So more on that when I get back to her, but in the meanwhile here's what Wolfe had to say. (Gritting our teeth as we must at all the "man" references. And at the opening lines that discount Zola.)
Why does it follow that if a man writes a book that is not like Madame Bovary it is inevitably like Zola? I may be dumb but I can't see this. You say that Madame Bovary becomes eternal while Zola already rocks with age. Well this may be true--but if it's true isn't it true because Madame Bovary may be a great book and those that Zola wrote may not be great ones? Wouldn't it also be true to say that Don Quixote or Pickwick or Tristram Shandy "become eternal" while already Mr. Galsworthy "rocks with age"? I think it is true to say this and it doesn't leave much of your argument, does it? For your argument is based simply upon one way, upon one method instead of another. And have you ever noticed how often it turns out that what a man is really doing is simply rationalizing his own way of doing something, the way he has to do it, the way given him by his talent and his nature, into the only inevitable and right way of doing everything--a sort of classic and eternal art form handed down by Apollo from Olympus without which and beyond which there is nothing. Now you have your way of doing something and I have mine, there are a lot of ways, but you are honestly mistaken in thinking that there is a "way." I suppose I would agree with you in what you say about "the novel of selected incident" so far as it means anything. I say so far as it means anything because every novel, of course, is a novel of selected incident. You couldn't write about the inside of a telephone booth without selecting. You could fill a novel of a thousand pages with a description of a single room and yet your incidents would be selected. And I have mentioned Don Quixote and Pickwick and The Brothers Karamazov and Tristram Shandy to you in contrast to The Silver Spoon or The White Monkey as examples of books that have become "immortal" and that boil and pour. Just remember that although in your opinion Madame Bovary may be a great book, Tristram Shandy is indubitably a great book, and that it is great for quite different reasons. It is great because it boils and pours--for the unselected quality of its selection. You say that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe will come along presently and put in. Well, don't forget, Scott, that a great writer is not only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoyevsky were great putter-inners--greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers and will be remembered for what they put in--remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.
Oates is sometimes a taker outer. Her book Black Water, for example, a fictional take on Mary Jo Kopechne's death in Ted Kennedy's car at Chappaquiddick, is terse, shatteringly so. But when she sweeps me up as a reader is when she's in her putter-inner mode as a writer. When her work boils and pours.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The amazingness of Joyce Carol Oates, part one

Look elsewhere for commentary about her astounding output--except for this comment about the commentary: what's so funny? Why are so many compelled to make fun of her because she writes an impossible number of books? If they were dreck, okay, sure, joke away. They are anything but.

At her worst, when her fiction is at its slightest, it is slight, I think, only in comparison to her usual very high standard. It's never really bad compared to the vast dreck-loads of bad fiction foisted upon the reading public in this country. At its best ...

At its best, which it is impossibly often -- I mean, come on, the greatest sluggers in baseball only make base hits a minority of their at-bats, most of the time striking out, so why should writers, who, I'd argue, rely on much harder to use body parts, be expected to hit one out of the ballpark every time they step up to the plate (tee hee who ever thought a sports metaphor would find its way onto this blog?), and yet she comes so close impossibly often -- at its best, the work of Joyce Carol Oates is stark raving brilliant.

I'm speaking about her fiction. I've read one book of her short fiction and a few other assorted stories, but mostly novels and novellas, and none of her drama, essays or poetry. What I want to say about her fiction is first of all this. It is unfailingly class-conscious. (By which I don't mean communist, by any means, but more on that in part two.) It is shot through with social-political commentary evidently derived from a pretty clear-eyed vision of the ills and awfulnesses of this society. It takes on, in a way I've never seen with any other white writer in the U.S., the realities of race, nationality, racism in this country. It wades unflinchingly into the ugly muck of the patriarchy, of men, boys, women, girls, the sexes and their relations, sexism, misogyny, so unflinchingly, so courageously I often think as I read some passage that strikes me as a female reader as so real and raw and true, so dead-on in its evocation of life as a woman, courageously because she doesn't hold back, never stops short, plunges forward into the ugliest nastiest muck of it, and by ugly and nasty I mean of course emotionally but I also mean verbally, physically, violently, whatever it takes, without a hint of squeamishness or worry about seemliness or propriety, wherever she has to go to tell the truth there she goes ...

Since I seem to have gotten myself rolling and can't stop on this point, the profound insight about women's lives that is a feature of many of JCO's novels, I might as well move right on to what for me is the apex. Blonde. I've read a lot of books, fiction and non-fiction, about women's lot in this sexist society--hey, I was one of the first women's studies majors at the University of Michigan back in the mid-1970s, and anyway, that dubious credential aside, this whole topic is and has always been central to me, to every aspect of my life--but I have never read a book that expressed so well the depth and dimensions of women's oppression. This is the book that nails it.

Blonde is, forgive me, a bombshell. It is a densely packed portrayal of the subjugation, degradation, subjection, suppression of the female sex in this country--densely packed, and it explodes on contact. Every page is a minefield for the reader. A good friend of mine is currently reading it and she tells me she feels her heart breaking with every sentence she reads. She says she has to stop reading frequently, close the book and do other things, or else she'd fall apart.

In case anyone doesn't know, Blonde is a fictional telling of the life of Marilyn Monroe. Oates imagines herself so deeply into that tragic life that as you read it you feel that every word of it is true, that JCO somehow knows everything about Monroe's thoughts and feelings, what she went through, what she wanted, what was done to her -- and oh brother oh sister, what was done to her! -- that she somehow is Marilyn Monroe! Or at least somehow was for the duration of the writing of this marvel of a novel. Picture that. Dark-haired big-eyed rail-thin wraithlike intellectual Joyce Carol Oates somehow entered so deeply into the blonde zaftig movie star's experience that it's as if she was channeling Monroe's own words, so real, so true, so awfully do they spill through the pages of this book.

Before I read Blonde I had some sympathy for Marilyn Monroe. I certainly saw her life as some sort of cautionary tale and her image as a symbol of what this society wants women to be. I don't think I'd thought deeply about her as a sort of everywoman, yet this is how I've come to think of her since reading Blonde. Marilyn Monroe not as a strange extreme case but rather Marilyn Monroe as the epitome of the female experience in the USofA. Marilyn Monroe as you and me, women. As our sister, believe it or not. Beloved, but far too late for our love to do her or us any good. And the funny thing is, every woman I know who reads this book feels pretty much the same way. Monroe was white, fetishistically white with that insanely platinum-dyed hair, which as the novel title indicates Oates makes much of in the book, but I know Latina and Black women who since reading this book feel powerfully connected to her, identify with her deeply. Monroe was a daughter of the working class, came from poverty, went through great hardship through much of her life, but I know some pretty damned comfortably well-off petit-bourgeois women who tell me they too relate to her, they too feel her since reading Oates' masterpiece. Monroe was mostly straight, famously married I think four or five times, the ultimate girly-girl heterosex symbol, yet here I am, none of the above, and I read this book and I feel so close to her, I feel I understand her so fully, that it's almost as though I've lived the same life she did. How can it be that this famous movie star, a case of sui generis if there ever was one, comes to be seen by so many women as embodying women's experience in this society?

Ladies and gentlemen, behold the wonder, the treasure, the literary genius that is Joyce Carol Oates.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Organize--Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!

People's lawyer Lynne Stewart, imprisoned in the Metropolitan Correction Center in lower Manhattan for nearly three weeks now, has just issued this public letter to her supporters. Read it, and read on after it for what you can do to support this brave, beloved hero.
Dear Sisters and Brothers, Friends and Supporters:

Well the moment we all hoped would never come is upon us. Goodbye to a good cup of coffee in the morning, a soft chair, the hugs of grandchildren and the smaller pleasures in life. I must say I am being treated well and that is due to my lawyer team and your overwhelming support.

While I have received "celebrity" treatment here in MCC--high visibility--conditions for the other women are deplorable. Medical care, food, education, recreation are all at minimal levels. If it weren't for the unqualified bonds of sisterhood and the commissary it would be even more dismal.

My fellow prisoners have supplied me with books and crosswords, a warm (it is cold in here most of the time) sweatshirt and pants, treats from the commissary, and of course, jailhouse humor. Most important, many of them know of my work and have a deep reservoir of can I say it? Respect.

I continue to both answer the questions put to me by them, I also can't resist commenting on the TV news or what is happening on the floor--a little LS politics always! (Smile) to open hearts and minds!

Liz Fink, my lawyer leader, believes I will be here at MCC-NY for a while--perhaps for a year before being moved to prison. Being in jail is like suddenly inhabiting a parallel universe but at least I have the luxury of time to read! Tomorrow I will get my commissary order which may include an AM/FM radio and be restored to WBAI and music (classical and jazz).

We are campaigning to get the bladder operation (scheduled before I came in to MCC) to happen here in New York City. Please be alert to the website in case I need some outside support.

I want to say that the show of support outside the courthouse on Thursday as I was "transported" is so cherished by me. The broad organizational representation was breathtaking and the love and politics expressed (the anger too) will keep me nourished through this.

Organize--Agitate, Agitate, Agitate! And write to me and others locked down by the Evil Empire.

Love Struggle, Lynne Stewart
Details about the status of Lynne's case and her health and how to help are posted at the Justice for Lynne Stewart website. Two things in particular might be of interest to Read Red readers. One is that Lynne loves to read, and would love for folks to send her books. However, according to MCC rules, she can only receive books sent directly from the publisher. Anyone who has a way to make that happen, to have a press send one or more books to Lynne, please make it happen. The other thing is simpler yet: write her. Doesn't matter whether you've ever met her. I've smiled and said hello and hugged her many times at various political events, but she doesn't know me by name; still, I'm going to sit down soon and write her a letter. It won't be my first letter to a political prisoner--I've written Mumia Abu-Jamal before, even sent him a poem!--but if it's yours don't let shyness stop you. You'll be doing a good deed for an old warrior.

Don't send stamps. Don't send anything that needs to be signed for. The address to which to send anything, books or letters, is:
Lynne Stewart
#53504-054
MCC-NY
150 Park Row
New York, NY 10007

Oh, and all mail is opened and read. What a country.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

My year's best reads

Mind you, I don't claim this constitutes a substantive posting, but it tickles me to offer it up so I shall. I've read something like 62 or 63 books so far in 2009. Here are my favorites.

Black Water Rising by Attica Locke
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Doris Lessing
Carpentaria by Alexis Wright
City of Refuge by Tom Piazza
Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips
Fault Lines by Nancy Huston
In the Kitchen by Monica Ali
Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea
Lake Overturn by Vestal McIntyre
Like Trees, Walking by Ravi Howard
A Long and Happy Life by Reynolds Price
The Scar of David by Susan Abulhawa
Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris
Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Unlike last year, this year they're all fiction. Like last year, the list includes some pretty old titles that I'm glad I finally read along with some more recent novels. Most of the books showing up on the literary establishment's best-of-the-year lists are not here, because (a) they don't interest me and I have no intention of reading them; (b) I'm waiting for the paperbacks because I can't afford hardcovers and/or I'm on the miles-long reserve list at the library; (c) I started reading them and stopped because they're boring and/or stinky and/or reactionary.

Now I'm wrestling with how to read on as the year winds down. Do I go for quantity, reading lots of short books in the sole interest of upping the year's total, or do I go for quality, reading one or two serious books I've been meaning to but been putting off? Or, and yes there is a third option, do I settle down over the 10-day holiday break that I get as a university employee with a big fat novel that a friend gave me that is not of high literary quality, has no particular socially redeeming value, will embarrass me to list on the "what I'm reading now" spot here, but I have a feeling I just might really enjoy? A beach book, in other words, only the winter version, more of a pajamas-and-tea book. Quantity? Quality? Fun? Decisions, decisions.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Sorry, back soon

Sorry for my scanty postings over the last week. Life intervenes (in a good way, mostly). I considered, as a stopgap, offering some meaty excerpts from Trotsky's Literature and Revolution, which I'm currently reading. But without adding considerable notes on the context--and the context is quite specific at least in the early part of the book--I don't think this would work too well. So bear with me. I should be back with a substantive word or two soon.

Monday, November 30, 2009

LT makes it clear

Bourgeois poetry, of course, does not exist, because poetry is a free art and not a service to class.*

*I received from an experienced and well-read journalist a thundering letter, proving the class character of literature. My correspondent took the sarcastic sentence literally. I am afraid that this might happen with others. There are not too many attentive readers in the world. I am therefore driving this note home with this inscription: "Attention! This is irony!"
from Literature and Revolution by Leon Trotsky (1924)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Bodies--yours, mine, & Susie Orbach's

I'm almost finished reading Bodies by Susie Orbach. It's a mixed bag and reading it is an odd experience.

Orbach is the British psychoanalyst most famous for her book of 30 years ago Fat Is a Feminist Issue, and for her subsequent work around women's issues. I've always meant to read FIFI but somehow never have. Last night in a conversation at a dinner I mentioned that book, and someone who's had weight issues all her life said she did not like it. The conversation went elsewhere so I didn't get to hear why, but I'm guessing it's similar to my reservations about Bodies.

On the one hand, there are many worthwhile points here, having to do with the commodification of bodies under late capitalism (my characterization, not hers), women's bodies especially but more and more men's as well; with the terrible destructive effects of the fashion, cosmetics and cosmetic surgery industries; with the alienation, the estrangement, from their bodies that is the experience of so many women as well as, again of late, men; and more. Orbach is in some ways quite astute about what's going on here. She incorporates recent findings in neuroscience, economic and social statistics, as well as psychoanalytic insights. The latter were eye opening for me. I've never had much interest in or regard for psychoanalysis--despite and also because in my job I am basically the secretary to 800 psychoanalysts. Many of them seem to be decent enough human beings but most of their work, which is done almost exclusively with those prosperous enough to pay their fees of $150-$350 per session for three to four sessions a week, appears to bear no relevance to what I'm interested in. That is the class struggle, the mass social struggle to build a better world as the most crucial means to redress the physical and psychic suffering of this world's billions of poor, oppressed and exploited. As opposed to their orientation, which is redressing the individual psychic suffering of people who profit from the exploitation. What Orbach writes doesn't change my class take on psychoanalysis as it is generally practiced, but it does make me see that a psychoanalytic approach can offer some meaningful and useful ideas about the underpinnings of psychic pain--could offer some help, that is, if it were ever to be made available to the unprosperous who are in such pain.

Which leads to the basic problem with this book. Orbach is not oblivious to the existence of social classes and she does make occasional explicit reference to it, and to people in continents other than Europe and North America. But it's clear that overall she is writing to and about the bourgeois and petit-bourgeois classes of white Europeans and North Americans. She is not oblivious to the economic system and writes a good deal about how various corporations and industries are profiting from body-related commerce. But she fails to say anything explicit about what's really going on here--that it's the capitalist market, the global capitalist market, that gives rise to all these horrific, ever-increasing profit-taking assaults on bodies, women's especially. It's the elephant--and that's a damned big body!--in the room of Bodies. Everything she writes about is a creation of capitalism, yet she declines to name capitalism as the problem or any kind of mass struggle as the solution. I've also got to note that this is a rather breathtakingly heterosexist book. Orbach makes an occasional comment including gay men in her analysis. Us lesbians, however, are pretty much invisible. Odd. One would think there would be rather a lot to say about lesbians in a book that is mostly about women's experience of their bodies and how the culture of late-term capitalism (again, my phrase, not hers) affects this experience.

One other note. I read, either in this book or in some news source, that Orbach is in the process of putting together a class-action lawsuit against the diet company Weight Watchers. The gist of her complaint will be, as it is articulated in Bodies, that Weight Watchers and all the rest of the diet industry are perpetrating a giant fraud. The fraud consists of lying to potential customers to persuade them that their diets work, whereas the truth, Orbach contends, is that not only do all these various diets not work but they actually contribute to body and nutrition problems. Furthermore, she says, the diet industry depends on its own products not working so that its customers will keep coming back over and over; they lose weight, gain it back, and get back on the diet desperate to lose it again. Weight Watchers in particular, she says, has a 97% recidivism rate! WW actually makes most of its money from its customers failing! Or at best, succeeding briefly, then gaining back what they lost or more, then coming back to start all over.

This last I know to be true. I've been going to Weight Watchers for about 10 months now. I've lost about 35 pounds and hope to lose another 15 in another few months. I am not unaware of the many contradictions, the many issues, at play. I am not unembarrassed to be paying this company money when I know perfectly well how to eat and exercise healthily on my own. I am not unconflicted about my own desire to lose the weight although I do maintain that it's much less influenced by socially mandated standards of feminity (have you seen me?) or propaganda about obesity, BMIs, etc., than by my own bodily experience that motivated me to try to get back to feeling more physically comfortable than I was feeling after amassing a rather stunning glop of adiposity upon the onset of menopause. My hope and intent is to finish getting back to a comfortable weight and then never set foot in another Weight Watchers meeting for the rest of my life. Regardless of my own experience, though, Susie Orbach is manifestly correct that Weight Watchers depends on serial failure for its profit. I've found this so stunning, so appalling, so poignant, that I recently wrote a story about it, featuring a scene (taken nearly verbatim from reality) in which a middle-aged woman says she's been coming to WW for 27 years and the WW leader gives her a gold star and urges the group to join her in a round of applause, cheering, "Way to go! Way to go!" exalting her as the exemplary Weight Watchers member.

At the same time, I also know that, however much the reports of an "epidemic" of obesity may be distorted, which is Orbach's contention, there is indeed such a thing as morbid obesity; its threat to the health and life expectancy of its sufferers is urgent and extreme; more and more people, mostly women, do suffer from it; along with the very real, devastating health efects, these women's psychic pain and the affronts, slights and humiliation visited upon them are enormous and constant. All of which constitutes a shame, a blight, upon this terrible divisive society we live in. Admittedly I have a certain subjectivity here, as many of the most loved women in my life have been fat, starting with my mother who eventually died at the young age of 65 from diseases caused by her obesity, and so I am perhaps a bit oversensitive to what they face. But when I step back and try to be objective, it seems to me that, evil though the diet industry certainly is, Orbach's approach of debunking what she sees as an overwrought hype about obesity fueled by that industry is not nuanced enough. She appears to argue from the perspective of sort of defending fat women from the moneygrubbers of Nutrisystem, Weight Watchers, et al, and that's all to the good. She cites some studies showing that you can be fit and "overweight," and that's a welcome corrective to the nasty, ignorant stereotypes of lazy fat people. Yet I wonder why she isn't equally as hard on agribusiness, which in so many ways is demonstrably contributing to ill health including the rise of diabetes, heart disease, etc. I wonder why she doesn't condemn capitalist governments that spend tax money on war rather than on public health including nutrition services--why she doesn't demand a health care system that helps people take care of their bodies so they're not driven into the arms of the diet industry.

OK. Enough. What I wonder, what I guess it all comes down to, is why Orbach stops short. Like the man with whose strange, sad story the book opens, Bodies cuts off its own legs. As usual, I guess what I'm ultimately writing about is the book I wish this one had been, the unwritten pages that, for me, would have completed it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Thankskilling

On Thursday, known as Thankskilling to supporters of the struggles of the indigenous nations of North America, Native people and their allies will gather for the 40th annual National Day of Mourning in Plymouth, Mass. Wampanoag leader Wampsutta led the first such gathering in 1970. Here is the text of his speech from that day.

The topic of racist settlers and indigenous people's struggle for self-determination always brings to mind, for me at least, as an anti-Zionist Jew, the question of Palestine and the tragic history of the imposition of the Israeli garrison state on the historic homeland of the Palestinian nation. For some time now I've been watching and waiting for an English-language edition of Shlomo Sand's book whose Hebrew title translates directly as something like "When and How Was the Jewish People Invented." Now it's here, with the more melodious but also somewhat less in-your-face title The Invention of the Jewish People. As usual, sigh, I'm hearing about it too late-- Sand was on a U.S. book tour last month and I could have heard him speak at NYU. Ah well. I do want to get the book into my hands and see what all the fuss is about. I'm not holding my breath for some great revelatory work of anti-Zionist history. We all know that the books by Israeli scholars touted as such, and even more so the writers themselves, tend to fall far short of the hype, to say the least. (Benny Morris, anyone?) On the other hand, hey, maybe I'll be happily surprised; maybe Sand really is that rare entity, the fully anti-Zionist resident of the Zionist state. Compromise: I'm not going to spend my money on it. I just checked online and there is a copy available in the Queens library system; I put in a request that it be sent to my branch. We shall see.

Though it's off topic, I want to note that today is the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. As I've mentioned before, I read it a couple years ago and was happily surprised at how easy it is to understand. Which makes sense when you realize that Darwin's whole purpose in writing it was to provide a popular introduction to the idea of evolution. If you haven't yet, you should read it too. You won't be sorry. In the meantime, this looks pretty cool. The Darwin Manuscripts Project is an online archive of the actual pages of Darwin's original draft of Origin. As of this writing, lunchtime Tuesday, the material has not yet been posted, but it's supposed to be up some time today.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

In which we stumble again upon the frustrations of a red reader's life

It's been a rough week for getting going on reading a new book. I've stopped and started three, maybe four, over the last several days. The common denominator: anticommunism of one variety or another. I was in the mood for non-fiction after quite a lengthy run of novels. I'd forgotten that, while it's often, maybe usually, there in fiction as well, albeit generally less explicit, there's a very high chance of an upfront, clearly articulated anticommunist credo marring any given book of history, science, sociology, anthropology, pretty much any other topic to which I might turn in a periodic quest for learning. I haven't been sleeping well and my fatigue prevents me from a long rant with all the specifics, which is probably just as well. I'll just note that I came up against repeated gratuitous references to "communist dictatorships," "Stalinism" and the like by "progressive," that is, anticommunist liberal writers, references that use that bogey-word as a shorthand to dismiss all the efforts and accomplishments over 70-plus years by the peoples of Eastern Europe and in particular the Soviet Union--efforts and accomplishments that include one that the rest of us should be down on our knees every day thanking them for. Which is the defeat of fascism, at the cost of some 20 million military and civilian Soviet lives. That incredible, magnificent accomplishment, that unbelievable sacrifice, that signal contribution to human progress--this is what is dismissed and derided with all these offhand, shorthand, tossed-off, we-may-have-complaints-about-bourgeois-democracy-but-we're-all-agreed-that-communism-is-the-true-evil uses of the all-purpose, dishonest epithet "Stalinism."

It may be that I'm too touchy. Maybe I ought to soldier on, let any given book have its say, try to ignore its declaration of anticommunism or antipathy to some specific socialist country. Usually I try, but the effort only lasts another page or two. Partly it's a gut thing. I'm just sickened and offended, and can't seem to get past it, can't forgive the writer for her/his assault on my partisan sensibilities. It's also a bit more reasoned, I think. Sure, it's fair to assume that most books written and published in this country--certainly most books reviewed and promoted which are after all most books I hear about--are products of bourgeois consciousness. Most are based on the whole gamut of perceptions, assumptions and ideology that are inculcated in everyone living under capitalism. OK, that's one thing. A book whose writer feels it incumbent upon him/herself to declare his/her anticommunism in the early pages takes it a step further. Don't worry, we are told as we begin to read, for of course these are always books that have been hyped as, yes, "progressive." Don't worry, we may have some criticisms, some points to make about this country, this system, its flaws, its shortcomings, we may have some ideas that deviate slightly from the dominant discourse, but we know full well that this is the best system, that it's simply not living up to its potential, don't worry, it isn't as if we're advocating for that other system, good lordy no, don't misunderstand us, we're not communists! The communists were really bad! Reading this kind of proclamation, in nearly so many words early on in what is supposed to be some radical new analysis of this or that, I'm convinced that the writer's theories and proposals are not merely bourgeois-reformist but, because they rest so firmly on so forthright an anticommunist foundation, are necessarily flimsy, shoddy, unworthy. Diversions. Diversions from the real work that's needed, to fight for real change. So I see no point in reading on.

By the way, this week I also had the unlovely experience of picking up a memoir by a supposedly committed communist from one of the former workers' states and not 20 pages in came upon an attack on Mao and the Chinese Revolution. Oy vey. Couldn't find in it me to push onward with this one either.

Am I a Stalinist? Or a Maoist? Whatever either of those labels means at this point? No, I don't identify as either. But I am a defender of every nation that has tried, is trying, or will try to overturn capitalism and build a society of equality and justice. I am an ally of all the billions of downtrodden workers and peasants who have fought or will fight for a better way. It is those billions--it is in other words our class--who are derided and insulted by the anticommunism, in whatever guise it takes, of liberal bourgeois writers and commentators.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

We love you, Lynne

On this day in 1915, revolutionary labor organizer Joe Hill was executed. His crime: fighting for the workers. His famous final words: "Don't mourn, organize."

On this day--today, November 19, 2009--people's lawyer Lynne Stewart was taken to prison. Her crime: fighting for the oppressed. She told the crowd of supporters who gathered around her in lower Manhattan to rally in solidarity--including Pam Africa, leader of the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, who traveled from Philadelphia to stand with Lynne--to stay strong, not cry, not worry about her, above all to keep struggling on. I couldn't be there because of work but my lover Teresa was, and she was very struck by how Lynne and her husband Ralph worked hard to raise everyone else's spirits.

She is not a martyr like Joe Hill. She'll continue doing her work inside the walls, I have no doubt. She'll survive, we can only hope.

Our beloved sister Lynne is now a political prisoner like our brothers Mumia, Leonard Peltier and the Cuban Five. Long life to them all! Tear down the walls!

Neither mom nor pop nor monopoly

I just realized I should acknowledge that there is another type of small bookstore that I do feel more protective of and would feel sorry if it disappeared. This is, for one, the collectively run left-politically oriented bookshop that's as much a community center as a business. There are hardly any still around. Maybe Bluestockings on the Lower East Side here in New York? I'm not sure if it's a collective though I have the sense it is, that its aims are other than profit, that it's owned and staffed by the same people. I've been to many movement events as well as readings there. It's a genuine community resource. There are also the small bookshops run by and for the oppressed nationalities--like the Hue-Man in Harlem, the Latino bookstore I visited a couple years ago in Palm Springs, and others scattered around the country. These are something more than stores; they are not just small businesses; they are cultural outposts, part of their communities' struggles for self-determination against the racist system. They deserve support and their loss would be a blow to the communities they serve.

Just to prove that my heart is in the right place in this regard, I dug this up this photo. Me in 1976 at the Ann Arbor women's bookstore, where I was a member of the collective.

I also like this picture for how it's an artifact of a different technological age. Check out the big old adding machine, the rolodex, the percolator. Feel free to also admire my Earth shoes and overalls if you're so inclined.

Sorry, mom & pop

Last month I wrote this and this about the price war over books that had broken out among several retailers. I addressed a couple issues, basically dissenting from the outrage from publishers and some writers, but I didn't address the point about how the big chains' capability for deep discounts could be another, perhaps even the decisive, blow to independent bookstores, those that are left and struggling to survive. So here's a comment on that, nothing definitive, just a point or two.

One is that yes, unlike most of the other arguments of those who are angry about Walmart selling cheap books, this one is probably valid.

The other, though, is: so what?

I have nothing against small businesses. Mom and pop shops of various types can be charming oases, can foster personal relationships among customers and between the owners and their customers, can offer personalized service, and so on. Also, the small-business class is strategically key to the revolutionary project. We want to win over the petit bourgeoisie to be the allies of the working class, we want the middle class to see that its interests are not served by this system (as indeed their increasing marginalization at the hands of the big monopolies shows), we want them with us and ultimately we need them with us. Small business owners, in particular bookshop owners, can be and often are great folks, caring folks, community-minded folks, and not greedy, not solely concerned with making ever more money--so there are ways that small business at its best and in particular the small or independent bookstores are different than big business with its impersonal corporate profit-driven rampage toward the bottom line.

I can see the sentimental appeal. But the reasons I'm not dewy-eyed about the plight of the small bookstores are:
  1. Petit though they may be, they are still bourgeois enterprises. Although they are doing it on a smaller scale, they exploit their employees. Whatever profit they do make is derived from their workers' labor--from the surplus value stolen from the workers. Mom and pop may be nice as all get-out, but they're robbing their employees. This is the essence of any capitalist business, big or small.
  2. Although some small shops may be relatively pleasant places to work (yet the corollary is rarely acknowledged, that some of them are hell on earth, with mean nasty bosses who are there in close quarters with the workers making their lives a daily misery), wages, benefits and even working conditions are usually considerably worse than at the big chains. Most important of all, though, workers at small stores are isolated, atomized, laboring alone or in the twos and threes and with absolutely no opportunity to organize, demand or get improved wages, benefits and working conditions. By contrast, there's Target, say, or even Walmart the rotten anti-union big daddy of retail. It's no fun working at these stores. But you're not alone--and you have the potential of unionizing and winning a better deal.
I would always rather work at a big company than for an individual small business owner. For workers, the strength is in numbers. The possibility of bettering their lives comes with the bigger picture.

Which is why, comfy-cozy as this or that bookshop may be (although truthfully my own experience hasn't made me fonder of the small ones than the big), I'll do my book buying wherever it costs me the least. Because everything else is not equal, and what I'm interested in is the well-being of the workers, not the owners.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

What is Marxism all about? and other worthwhile questions

Over the weekend at the Workers World Party 50th anniversary national conference, I bought a hot-off-the-presses copy of the new book What Is Marxism All About? A Street Guide for Revolutionaries On A Move, published by World View Forum. I'd link to it but it's so hot-off-the-presses, apparently, that it's not yet available online. When it is, I'll post a link and write a bit more about it. This evening, while I'm leafing through it, I'll just briefly send my thanks and congrats to the young comrades of FIST--Fight Imperialism, Stand Together--who collaborated on it. This book is a new edition--a total revamp, actually, or perhaps it should be characterized as something of a reimagining--of a nearly 40-year-old pamphlet that shared the first part of the title. About 20 years ago, I was supposed to work on revising the pamphlet, but I never did get to do it, and in a way I'm glad about my failure because I think the FIST version is far superior to what I would have come up with.

It's divided into 22 short chapters plus an introduction and the FIST program. Each chapter consists of a popularly written, understandable, cogent and concise presentation about a specific concept or issue or historical development. Among these: class society, exploitation and surplus value, women's oppression, racism and national oppression, how the state arose, the state today, fascism, revolution, socialism, communism, democracy, socialist countries.

What's exciting about this book is what was exciting about the WWP conference. I don't want to make any reckless predictions, or let my enthusiasm after an invigorating weekend get the best of me, but I do believe that both are signs of the beginning of an upsurge in struggle and revolutionary consciousness among youth. The conference had a higher proportion of young people than any in recent years, and those young people, including the authors of this book, are revved up about reaching out to other young people and drawing them toward the socialist movement.

*******************
As for the other worthwhile questions, since this is my evening for shout-outs, I've just got to send one to Richard Crary for this one: who fucking cares? Check it out, in his excellent riposte to another blogger's backward attack on Lorrie Moore and other women writers for their (our!) feminazi male-bashing. Well said, Richard! Always a relief to find islands of sensitivity.

Then there's: "Why do you think they all love you?" This is from a Wallace Shawn play, via Contra James Wood. It reminds me again that I've been meaning to read some Shawn, so thanks for that, Edmond.

Friday, November 13, 2009

While we confer

My dance card has been and will remain filled for the next few days, so don't expect much blog activity. This weekend I'll be at the Workers World Party national conference. Then I'll be exhausted. Then, at some point after that, I'll get back here.

To fill the gap here's this. My story "All the Ashleys in the World," which was published in the Spring 2009 issue of Nimrod, is now readable online. I've posted it at Fictionaut here. I hope providing this link doesn't smack too much of self-promotion. Since I mouth off so much on this blog about what fiction ought to do, I thought I'd step up to the plate and let anyone who might be interested see one of my efforts.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Emma Thompson's journey

There's been much ado down on the street outside my office today, with reporters and TV cameras and, apparently, stars and billionaires, all to open a five-day art installation titled Journey: Against Sexual Trafficking. I thought to check it out during my lunch hour once the stars and the billionaire despot of NYC had left, but something about it put me off. The line? Yeah, I'll wait a couple days and hope to not have to wait. The burly be-suited mobbed-up-looking security guards stationed all around it? Yeah, that creeped me out quite a bit--I mean, could these Journey folks have any less sensitivity than to surround their supposedly anti-sex-trafficking construction with men who might have been sent from Central Casting so perfectly do they appear the archetype of those who do the trafficking? One thing I know from my life as a woman under capitalism is that a great many more of us than is generally supposed work in one corner or another of the sex trade in the course of our lives. The poorest, the most exploited, the unluckiest, are forced into it young, are transported across the globe, have no papers, can never get out, and one way or another it kills them. Others are forced by economic and social circumstances into prostitution, from the hardest, most dangerous work on the streets to the better-paying but still hard and dangerous call-girl gigs, to stripping and exotic dancing, to the porn industry, and some of these women too it kills, but some find a way to survive, some even find a way eventually toward other jobs. OK, this wasn't supposed to be the occasion for some big treatise on the sex industry and the subjugation of women; I only wanted to point out how closely this topic touches so many women's lives (in fact I think this is one of the great secrets of capitalism) and that it would have been nice if it had occurred to someone that those large scary-looking men posted around the installation might themselves be triggers to pain and sorrow for any given woman who might otherwise think about approaching and checking it out.

Which I will try again to do in a day or two. I have a perhaps knee-jerk skepticism about it--I can't help but feel that it somehow smacks itself of sex tourism, of a kind of liberal-hearted voyeurism into that world of pain and sorrow, voyeurism in the guise of crusading on behalf of the victims of the sex trade--I fear there's covert titillation there in equal part to the overt outrage--that there's a neocolonial subtext as well, a look-at-how-those-people-in-those-countries-live condescenscion at least and racism at worst--and it surely has very little to do with any actual struggle, any actual action, organizing, against the patriarchy in its most monstrous manifestations---but. But. I'll try to go and see what there is to see.

Journey is somehow backed or sponsored by the British actor Emma Thompson. Who doesn't love her? Well, I hadn't been loving her much lately, since she signed on to that odious campaign to free Roman Polanski. But guess what? She's now removed her name. After a young woman approached her and appealed to her to rethink her position on Polanski--she did! And is now under vicious attack from the rapist's supporters.

Monday, November 9, 2009

If you're as sick as I am ...

... of all the self-congratulatory hooplah plastering every possible bourgeois media outlet celebrating the 20th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Wall, you might find this interesting.

According to an international poll conducted for the BBC to gauge world opinion 20 years after the demise of the socialist countries in Europe, "Opinion about the disintegration of the Soviet Union is sharply divided." Western Europeans applaud it. Strong majorities in Egypt and other poor countries--and in Russia and Ukraine-- say it is "mainly a bad thing."

Check out my comrade Greg's finely honed observations about the German Democratic Republic at his blog Absent Cause.

In Germany, it seems there's growing interest in the writer Peter Hacks, who lived in the GDR and never turned against communism. I hadn't known about him and, having waded through this heavily anti-communist New Yorker blog post about him and the renaissance of his work, I'm going to check out whether any of his stuff is available in English.

My own view, in case anyone cares and in case it isn't clear by now, is that the Soviet Union, GDR, Yugoslavia and other European and Central Asian countries that were trying to build socialism were flawed workers' states. Despite the flaws--and they have been so exaggerated, so many of them simply fabricated and much of the rest so enormously distorted by 92 years of masterful imperialist propaganda that the only honest attitude a pro-communist partisan can take is to distrust any critique that comes from any source except a defender of these comrades' heroic efforts and sacrifices before, during and after World War II--enormous gains were made that immeasurably improved the lives of the masses of people. In the years since the end of those first attempts to build socialism, conditions of life in the formerly socialist countries have deteriorated sharply for the vast majority. Infant mortality is up. Life expectancy is down. The situation for women, always the central marker of the justness of any society, has worsened dramatically. And so on.

So celebrate all you want, imperialism and all those you've managed to sucker into believing your lies. The workers will rise again, in eastern Europe and central Asia no less than Latin America, where our class is already more and more engaged in many countries, no less than Nepal where the armed struggle continues, no less than Ethiopia and Afghanistan where nascent workers' states were overturned by U.S.-funded and -armed counterrevolutionaries, no less than South Africa, the Philippines, and even, no, especially, in the headquarters of Japanese, western European and U.S. imperialism.

This seems a good moment to send a shout-out to Read Red's friends in the former socialist republics of Europe and central Asia. I've noticed that this blog has been getting more and more visits from people in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Lithuania, Kazakhstan. Perhaps it's just coincidence. I prefer to think they are kindred spirits who've somehow heard about this little outpost of flawed but earnest attempts at communist literary thought. Welcome, sisters and brothers! I'm happy to know you're checking in, keeping me honest as I keep trying my best to read red.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Reasons to stop reading in the first 20 pages

When the main character, temping as a clerical worker in a university academic department, grouses about the fat, stupid secretaries she's temporarily stuck among. As a secretary at a university academic department, sometimes a fat one but not, I declare, a stupid one, I was offended to the point of cursing out loud and throwing the book across the room. This was in the early pages of a widely acclaimed novel of a couple years ago.

When the writer recounts, in a tone of arch wit, how she endured an awful cross-country flight stuck sitting next to an African American man she claims had body odor, which the writer explicitly describes as typical for African Americans. Really, she did, and really, I not only threw that book across the room, I tore it up and trashed it. This was in the early pages of a widely acclaimed memoir by a Hollywood wheeler-dealer some years back. Amid all that acclaim not one reviewer had taken note of this extraordinarily offensive racist passage in the first few pages.

The first example shows how every treacherous are the waters into which we readers wade every time we open a book. You never know what gratuitous bit of idiocy might be embedded in what everyone's been telling you is a great book, none of them having noticed or cared about the passage that stops you cold. The second example is of course much more important but, unfortunately, just as commonplace. One of the more frequent refrains of my postings here has been about the stranglehold of bourgeois consciousness in the literary world. This plays out in what writers write, and equally in what reviewers read--what they don't take note of continually astounds and arrests me, as time after time I pick up a book that I'd concluded from the reviews I might like, only to quickly skid to a stop as the stain of unconscious racism or sexism or anti-worker sentiment spills onto the pages making them unreadable and any further time with the book impossible to contemplate.

Or some mix of the above. It happened to me again recently, in this case with a book I'd been sent as a free review copy--the first time that's happened and probably the last. The book is Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer's Life by Michael Greenberg. Gosh, what a lot of laudatory blurbs it comes with. "Brilliant." "Dazzling." "Moving" "A work of art." And so on. Well, I wouldn't know about all that. All I know is that I couldn't make it past the first 20 pages or so. It's a matter of twice being brought up short by the writer's petit-bourgeois consciousness in full display of utter unconsciousness.

True, I was less than enthralled anyway. In fact, I was put off from the start. For one thing, unlike the impression I had from the reviews I'd read, that this writer came from the working class, he's in fact just one more sort-of rebellious child of a small-business owner. OK, so much for some gritty tale of a working-class kid's struggles making a life from writing. Then there's the name dropping about the 60s Village scene, which I find tedious.

But here are the two stop signs beyond which I had no desire to slog.

One of the first passages is about how Greenberg as a youth dreaming of becoming a writer had refused to join the father's business, a scrap-metal yard in the Bronx, and then about how after his father's death his brothers decided to shut it down. Greenberg takes one last trip to visit the site. He recounts his conflicted feelings. He has a brief conversation with one of the workers but never for an instant contemplates, or at least has no word to say in the book about, what is to become of the workers who are losing their jobs, their livelihoods, after their long years of labor created the profits off which his family has lived. Hey, I know, fuggedaboudit, right? They're just some dumb workers, this isn't their story, who cares what happens to them. I can't forget about them, though, I'm funny that way. Especially workers in the Bronx who are left to fend for themselves when their exploiters flee.

So there I sit, already fuming, and here comes the icing on the cake: a reference to the "crack whores" who used to populate the Bronx streets. Human beings--women--impoverished, oppressed, exploited, desperate, ill women, reduced to a snide shorthand, "crack whores." And I'm supposed to care about this guy's life?

Still, I read on for another dozen or so pages. Until I finished the lovely little chapter about how his first son was conceived. Long story short: he and his girlfriend happened to find themselves in Argentina at the time of the fascist takeover; she accidentally found herself nabbed and jailed; don't worry, he was able to spring her with the aid of a wad of cash and the support of the U.S. embassy (a.k.a. the fascists' backers); they got the hell out of the country and holed up in a motel, shellshocked at her four-day ordeal, having sex that ultimately brings forth the issue of his firstborn. All this is told in under three pages, all of it is of the "then I did this and then I did that in an exotic crazy place where exotic crazy things were happening and it's all fodder for my writer's life boy have I had a writer's life or what" school of memoir--and none of it breathes an ounce of concern or awareness about the reality of the dirty war in Argentina other than its standing as background to how his son was born. Not a reference to the tens of thousands of the Disappeared, to the war against the workers, the unions, the students, the women, to the mass murder that brought long years of misery to the masses of Argentina. Not another page worth turning.

The horror! The horror!

How is Stephen King like Joseph Conrad? The body of work of both authors is ostensibly positioned on the side of the oppressed yet actually shot through with racism.

In Conrad's case there is the epitome of this contradiction, Heart of Darkness. I'm no expert but I have read that Conrad was appalled by what he saw in Africa, in particular the genocidal nightmare visited on the people of the Congo by the Belgian colonizers. He positioned himself as a sort of liberal voice of conscience, but not against colonialism itself, not against Europe's right to exploit the natural riches and human labor of the African nations. It's clear in the pages of the novel that, upsetting as all that blood and suffering might have been to him, he never regarded those shedding the blood as actual people, fully human people equal to his peers in Poland, Belgium or England. Chinua Achebe deconstructed all this in his famous 1988 essay "An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness.'"
... Joseph Conrad was a thoroughgoing racist. That this simple truth is glossed over in criticisms of his work is due to the fact that white racism against Africa is such a normal way of thinking that its manifestations go completely unremarked.

... And the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art. My answer is: No, it cannot.
Now to Stephen King. Granted that, unlike Conrad, who still has slews of defenders despite Achebe's to my mind definitive takedown, King is not generally regarded as meriting a place in the literary pantheon. Oh, wait a minute--bizarrely, he kind of is: in 2003 he was awarded the National Book Foundation's "Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters." Anyway, whether he's seen as a shlockmeister or a fine artist, the guy writes a lot of books, and they all sell a lot of copies, they all get read. He's got a new one out, featured on the front page of today's New York Times Book Review. If you read the review (if, that is, you're able to go on after the incredibly clueless, ass-backward misread of the 1960s in the first paragraph), you'll find that this new novel is quite political, King's liberal fictive commentary on some of what's going on in this country now. So I immediately wondered: hey, are there any magical Black people?

For if anything defines King's oeuvre, it's that: the otherness of African Americans. I've read quite a few of his books--more on that in a minute--and I don't recall a single Black character that is a fully fledged and also a fully normal human being. From The Stand to The Shining to Bag of Bones to The Green Mile and on and on, they appear time and again, Black ghosts, Black wise women, Black wise men, Black genies, Black angels. Never, at least in the books I read till I stopped reading his books, a Black person who is simply and wholly that, a person. Like Conrad, it seems, King has seen the horrors to which Black people, in his case African Americans, have been subjected, and he's keen to express it, to show that he knows of it, and he does so the only way he seems to know how. Which is by writing them as the Other.

I admit I did not realize this until after having read several of King's books. I enjoyed them as spooky, engrossing escapes, and the writing is fast and fluid so that you do escape into the story. I was always turned off by his many annoying tics, like the constant product placement and the hokey sayings he makes up for his characters to constantly mouth, but the fast-paced and genuinely scary plots sucked me in enough that I overlooked them. Then, however, I started getting turned off by the slick, shallow hollowness of the liberal ethic at the core of most of his stories. And I woke up to his really appalling portrayal of Black characters. And then I read about his shrunken head.

In some interview a decade or more ago (I just searched and couldn't find it, but I swear I did read it), King was quoted as "revealing" the inspiration for much of his fiction. How he works up a head of horror steam, basically--how he gets his head into that spooky scary place where his stories reveal themselves to him. Here's how, he said. He opens his desk drawer and takes out the shrunken head he keeps there. It is, he said, the head of a Black slave boy from the early 19th century. He couldn't reveal where he got it and he couldn't prove it was real, he said, but he thought it was. A shrunken head of an enslaved Black teenager from some 1800s plantation. This, said King, this is the real horror. Slavery. What was done to this lad and so many others. I keep this here to remind myself that real life is full of horrors, and when I take it out and look at it, or even when I don't since I'm always aware that it's there in the drawer, I am filled with rage and terror and my stories come to me.

That's all paraphrase, but it's basically true to what I read. I've never read another word by Stephen King. Do I need to spell out why? The fact that he keeps such an artifact, that he can and wants to and does, is in itself revolting. The fact that he uses it for inspiration is even more repulsive. That he holds it up as proof of his sensitivity when in fact it proves the opposite; far from engaging in any deep consideration of the system of chattel slavery in the United States, King rather exploits it in the form of what amounts to a talisman, exploits all that horror and pain in the service of his bestsellerdom.