Friday, July 31, 2009

Last gasp of vacation links

I just read Nicholson Baker's New Yorker piece about the Kindle. It is not the all-out declaration of war you might expect from this writer who famously wrote about and campaigned against libraries' wholesale destruction of physical newspapers in favor of microfilm. It is by turns thoughtful, piquant, peevish, wicked, realistic, informative, and full of hilariously on-target turns of phrase. For example, Baker describes the Kindle 1 as "a retro piece of bizarrerie." Bizarrerie! Have you ever? As for the new "TV-dinner-size Kindle DX," Baker deems it "a peculiar tea party of un-ergonomicism." There's lots more than felicitous phraseology, though, lots to chew on. Ultimately, it does seem to me that his points about the problems, both with the specific technological shortcomings of this iteration of what is still a very new machine and also, more meaningfully,with the machine's whole concept, tip the scale. After pointing out the preponderance of books that are not available on Kindle, he seals the deal thus:
Kindle books aren't transferable. You can't give them away or lend them or sell them. You can't print them. They are closed clumps of digital code that only one purchaser can own.
And that you must purchase, I might add, and cannot borrow for free from a library. Not that there will be any stopping this train. It's a runaway on the profit track.

By the way, I've read and liked a couple of Nicholson Baker's books. My favorite remains one of the first, from 1990, his novel The Mezzanine. The entire (skinny) book consists of the stream of consciousness in the mind of a man over the course of the 30 seconds or so it takes him to ride the escalator from the entry level to the mezzanine in the World Trade Center. I'm familiar with that escalator and that mezzanine, neither of which exist any longer. The Theater Development Fund, the outfit that runs the famous Times Square operation selling half-priced tickets to Broadway shows every afternoon, used to also have a booth, not very well known so therefore there were never any lines at this one, there on the WTC mezzanine. That one opened at 9 a.m. every day whereas the Times Square one opens at 4:00. I rode that escalator to the mezzanine TDF booth and bought some half-priced tickets in August 2001. That time, as every time, I thought about The Mezzanine and marveled at the mind that could come up with such an odd and oddly exhilarating book.

Speaking of odd, but in this case not in the least exhilarating, minds: check this out. It's pretty funny.

Politically progressive novelists, give this your best shot! It's time for another round of applications and decision-making for the Bellwether Prize. This one's unique. It's the only prize in this country designated to recognize a work of socially conscious fiction. The winner gets money and publication. I sent my first novel in a couple years ago and, bummer, got nowhere. Maybe you'll be the one this year. It's well worth the attempt, especially given the entire lack of interest in political fiction almost everywhere else in the U.S. publishing landscape.

I'm sorry to hear of the ouster of the communists in Moldova. There's good news from Germany, however. Polls show that most people in the eastern part of the country say life was better in the German Democratic Republic. In its report, Spiegel predictably characterizes this as nostalgia for the bad old days. The truth is, however, that capitalist shock therapy forced bad new days on the people of the former GDR, days getting worse and worse, in fact, filled with unemployment, declining health and life expectancy, horrific deterioration in women's lot, rising racism and so on. (Talking about truly bad old days, and back to Moldova and its capital city, formerly known as Kishinev, site of the worst pogrom in pre-Nazi history, here's a link to a version of a chapter from my first novel, depicting the day of that pogrom as experienced by a 5-year-old.)

Finally, the latest progress report on my slog through Michael Gross's book about the Met. I should say my death-match with this book. Have you ever been determined to finish a book yet it seemed equally determined to stymie your efforts? Here is such a case. One obstacle I haven't mentioned before, but that's been driving me nuts since the opening pages, is Gross's inexcusably sexist language. Yep, lots of mankind is this, and man is like that, lots of the arts created by man, and ever since man, and man's yearning for and oh man oh man make it stop make it stop! I've been gritting my teeth, but yesterday I came to the passage where Gross reports on the Met board of trustees taking on some women members for the first time in 1952. Here's how he identifies them:
Mrs. Ogden Reid; Mrs. Sheldon Whitehouse, the granddaughter of a founder of the Central Pacific Railroad; and the second Mrs. Vincent Astor, Minnie Cushing ... .
That's right. Two out of the three new Met trustees -- and heavens knows why the third merits mention of her own name -- do not have names. They are simply Mrs. with their husbands' names. This is so unbelievably backward that I'm now much closer to giving up on this book. The writing is pedestrian. The exposing exposes nothing much. The androcentrism is central. The robber barons care deeply about the arts. I'm realizing that we, or I at least, have been had. All that crap about the museum trying to block this book, the establishment press trying to ignore it, and so on? It was all a brilliant PR campaign to position Rogues' Gallery as the must-read of the season. I fell for it. Sheesh. Luckily, though, I'm now 30 pages into another novel ...