Saturday, October 31, 2009

Songs in Ordinary Time

It's a funny thing how this book had its way with me. Songs in Ordinary Time by Mary McGarry Morris. It took me longer to read it than it should--it's about 740 pages, but the pages fly--because of my horrid error last week leaving the book in Manhattan over the weekend. I ended up not getting it back into my hands till Tuesday night so didn't get back to reading it till Wednesday morning on the way in to work. But it stayed on my mind. And I re-entered the story easily. All of which, how it pulled me in and held me, is a little surprising. Because, on the surface at least, it doesn't seem to be the sort of book that would enthrall me so.

Now that I've finished it, and the end was very satisfying indeed, I'm thinking about why--why it had its way with me and why I wouldn't have expected this. I'm not a snob of the variety who turn their noses up at any Oprah Book Club pick, an attitude I find ridiculous. I'm not against what are generally thought of as women's books--by which I don't mean chick lit but rather quality fiction, usually by women writers, that focuses on family relationships and especially women's lives and women's roles. I've read plenty such books. But, especially in recent years, I have less and less patience for stories that are so exclusively focused on this kind of stuff, novels I think of as kitchen-table books, stories that consist so wholly of dissecting familial relationships and their dysfunction that they become, from my viewpoint, irrelevant and therefore uninteresting, boring. Familial relationships, women's lives especially, interest me if--only if--they're presented in the context of the society in which they're formed. If, and only if, these stories have something to say about this society and what it does to women and their children and their relationships and the work they do in and out of the home.

This novel does that, and more. The central characters are one woman and her family in a small New England town in the summer of 1960, and it's also about the whole town and the social dynamics at play. Poverty. Racism. Deep, clear class divisions. Women's oppression. The damage done by religious hypocrisy and the social strictures of the time, damage to women especially. We readers sweat through the wrenching, excruciating lives of Marie and her kids day by day. We become deeply involved, caring, stomachs churning, biting our nails, bracing ourselves for the awful climax we're afraid is inevitable. It's a mark of Morris's skill that, while the readers are most centrally focused on the Fermoyle household, we also engage with the big cast of more peripheral characters too. There's not a type or stick figure in the bunch.

There is a lot of pain. Ultimately, I was relieved to find, there is also some hope. Both of which, the pain and the hope, ring true.* This is a very good book. It was published well over a decade ago and has been sitting on my shelf for who knows how long and who knows why I finally picked it up but I'm glad I did.

*Only one thing, a tiny, minor thing on a page or two, bothered me. A tiny, minor flaw in verisimilitude: a reference to somebody driving a Mustang. The Ford Mustang did not exist in the summer of 1960. See, I'm from Detroit. We know these things. I know this specific thing because one of the most memorable days of my elementary school life was our fifth-grade field trip to the River Rouge plant in 1964. At River Rouge, Ford had the biggest industrial production plant in the world. It had everything and did everything necessary to build a car, from start to finish. There was a steel mill right there--I'll never forget what a fiery hell it was--and the milled steel then rolled on to the main assembly line where the cars were made. On that day we visited, it happened that the first Mustangs were rolling down the line. It might sound hokey now, but wow that car looked to us like it was from outer space, the design was so fresh, so different--and the colors! Orange! Metallic greens and blues! Colors never before seen on a car. Anyway, as you can see, when I got to the paragraphs that had a Mustang driving through, a Mustang that I know didn't exist in 1960, it broke my concentration and sent me off into reminiscence about when I watched Mustangs being built ... and then about my uncle Sam Saad who worked at another Ford plant and was for many years a UAW committeeman and later, when I was a bus driver in Ann Arbor and we went on strike was the only person in my family who was supportive and encouraging to me ... and then about Detroit, the ruined city of Detroit, the most impoverished, wiped out city in this country, and how the auto industry sucked billions of dollars in profit out of the workers of Detroit, how Big Auto sucked the lifeblood out of Detroit and then shut it down, just jettisoned the workers and the city and for that were awarded a zillion-dollar bailout of tax dollars from the federal government. ... But that's another book for another time.

Friday, October 30, 2009

And now, a word from our sponsor

OK, that heading is too precious by half, and yet it stays, because it does express something I want to express. The title and subtitle of this blog ought to be clear enough but I fear that what I write often isn't. I'm nobody's paragon of a communist reader and commentator. I am on the one hand too unschooled, utterly unschooled in fact, in literary matters; nor can I on the other hand claim mastery of the depths of Marxist thought in matters socioeconomic or artistic. Still I think I have an angle that's perhaps worthwhile. There are many analysts, many academics who style themselves as Marxist but, well I've just got to say it, none of them as far as I can see ever scuff their marching shoes, ever spend a night in jail, ever devote days and nights to stuffing envelopes or making phone calls or pasting up posters or taking union sign-up cards door to door or walking picket lines or blocking entries to struck factories or writing fliers or handing out fliers or confronting racist cops or blocking evictions. They never, in other words, do any of the thousand and one things that add up to the actual essence of Marxism: organizing the workers and oppressed, fighting the ruling class, doing the work, grand and petty, that must be done if the project of revolutionary socialism is ever to come to fruition. At the university where I work, for example, there are quite a few "Marxist" academics, none of whom has ever lifted a finger in serious, meaningful support of the workers when we've been on strike or in other confrontations with the bosses. They no doubt write great books, but they're writing for each other and it's hard for me to understand how such work contributes to the actual class struggle.

Wait. I hadn't meant to go off on a rant against left academics. It arises in part, I suppose, out of feeling defensive about my shortcomings as a literary analyst. I'll leave it here, though, while getting back to the point at which I was aiming. Which is that I blog here because, for all my shortcomings, I like to think that what I bring to the conversation--the viewpoint of a worker and activist who is also a reader and writer--is worthwhile. But the most important thing is the struggle. I read because I love to, it's my favorite thing to do in life; I write fiction because I have to, I'm somehow compelled to; I blog to spout off my two cents--but none of this matters the way fighting for socialism matters. Which is not to say there's anything wrong with it, and of course I hope that my fiction will eventually, should it ever start getting read by anyone, have some small impact, be some small contribution--but the main thing is the fight.

So. Took me long enough to get to it, but this is an invitation. As anyone who follows Read Red has surely inferred, I belong to a party: Workers World Party. Maybe in another post some time soon I'll write about why I joined WWP 28 years ago, what my life in the party has been and how it interrelates with my artistic life. For now, this: WWP is in my opinion the leading force for revolutionary socialism in this country; it has been in the lead in every major struggle, from anti-war and anti-intervention to anti-racist and pro-labor, over the last 50 years, beginning with staging the very first protest against the Vietnam war; it is the only left party that supports every country struggling to build socialism, every instance of resistance to imperialism, every movement for liberation, every outbreak of the class struggle at home and worldwide. It is in my view the place to be if you want to take your place as an active participant in the fight.

In two weeks WWP will mark its 50th anniversary and set the course for the coming period at a national conference here in NYC. I can guarantee this will be an exciting, invigorating gathering of folks from around the country, from many different communities and with varied experiences. I'm guessing there'll even be a touch of culture crammed in here and there--some music, some dance, some spoken-word poetry--for those of us who like roses as well as bread.

I invite you. Come to New York Nov. 14-15. If you need a ride, email me; chances are someone's coming from your neck of the woods. If you need a place to stay, email me and I'll try to hook you up. If you come to the conference, find me (yeah, we wear dorky name tags all weekend) and we'll do lunch or something.

Reading is great. Writing is wonderful. Fighting to fix the world--not just reading or writing about it, but doing the work--is best of all. Hope to see you in two weeks.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

My Diva

Well no, not mine. Sadly, I don't have a diva. But in the collection My Diva: 65 Gay Men On the Women Who Inspire Them we hear from some fellows who do. My Diva came out earlier this year, and thanks to great word of mouth and loving devotion from the folks at the University of Wisconsin Press, it's been getting the kind of respect it deserves but that might not have been expected. Sales, too: UWP recently came out with a second printing. This is by all reports* a compilation of sweet, sad, funny reflections--Publishers Weekly called them "very short, very tender essays"--on inspiration and its sometimes surprising sources.

The book's editor is Michael Montlack, a fine poet who I met two summers ago at the Lambda Literary Foundation's first LGBT writers' retreat in Los Angeles. He and several contributors have been drawing crowds at a series of readings, all of which I'm sorry to say I've missed. (That's him at left, at a Barnes & Noble event.) I'm sorry to say I'll probably miss this next one, too, but maybe somebody reading this can make it there. It's this Friday, hosted by NYU's MFA program.

*No, I haven't read My Diva yet. I've kept meaning to make it to a reading and buy one and have Michael autograph it ... .

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Places to go, people to read

I'll head up tonight after work: to 777 UN Plaza for a 6:00 program called "Crisis in Honduras," featuring reports from members of the U.S. solidarity delegation that traveled to Tegucigalpa earlier this month plus Honduras UN Ambassador Jorge Arturo Reina and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.

I want to head up tomorrow after work: to the Asian American Writers' Workshop, 16 West 32nd Street, 10th Floor, at 7:00, for "An Evening with Hwang Sok-Young." The Korean writer and former political prisoner, jailed by the U.S. puppet regime in the south for the "crime" of setting foot in the socialist north, will read from his autobiographical novel The Old Garden, recently published here in English translation.

I plan to head over Thursday after work: to the Brecht Forum, 451 West Street, at 7:00, for a presentation by Fred Goldstein, author of Low-Wage Capitalism, followed by what ought to be a lively discussion.

You'll note that I will go tonight, while I want to go tomorrow, and I plan to go Thursday ... because the week as it proceeds tends to have its way with me. So we'll see. But

I'll definitely swing by after work Friday and join the picket line: outside Billionaire Mayor-for-Life Bloomberg's campaign headquarters at 813 Broadway, 5:00 to 6:30. There are many good reasons for this protest, but one of the best is last week's racist affront when Bloomberg dredged up scumbag horror show Rudolph Giuliani to tell a group of religious reactionaries, in nearly so many words of a KKK-type "warning," that if William Thompson wins the mayoralty it will mean terror in the streets for white people. Thompson is African American. As is David Dinkins, former NYC mayor who Giuliani ousted from office in 1994 after an openly racist campaign whose low point came when Giuliani led a police riot that took over downtown and featured drunken cops carrying signs calling Mayor Dinkins "the washroom attendant." Giuliani and his racist following are Bloomberg's failsafe strategy, as if spending more than anyone in history isn't enough to buy him another (illegal, in defiance of the term-limits law passed by popular referendum) term.

Back with more bookish stuff soon.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

And yes, there are other books, so I shouldn't be so dramatic ...

... but they're not this book, this book that I'm reading, these lives, lots of them yet each one amazingly well drawn, that I'm so caught up in. So don't tell me to pick up some other book this weekend. I've got miles of them, tall tottering to-read piles, but it's unthinkable that I could break the grip of this novel by starting another. I can imagine starting some nonfiction, and perhaps I will, but a novel, no no no. That would be like taking a walk in Brazil, turning a corner and finding myself in Iran. My mind is immersed in Portuguese, how am I supposed to suddenly understand Farsi?

And yes I checked the Queens library and no there's no solution there. First thing this morning I got online in hopes there'd be an available copy of this novel at my branch library so I could run over there and check it out. Sadly, there isn't.

A tragedy of epic proportions

I left my book in Manhattan!

I left the novel I'm reading, the novel in which I'm thoroughly engrossed, the novel that I've been compulsively returning to every time I have even 30 seconds to move through another page or two, I left it in Manhattan!

I left the very good novel I'm reading, which I'd just been discussing with my friend, telling her I'm surprised I'm liking it so much, it doesn't quite fit my usual template, but that I'll think about all that, about why it works for me, later, for now I'm just reading it reading reading it, just utterly swept up in it, I left it on my friend's desk!

I was halfway to Queens last night when I realized I didn't have my book! I was in tears! Teresa was sweet as could be, offering to go back, offering to go into Manhattan today to get it for me. But no of course I would never ask such a thing. Nor am I quite that broken up enough myself, to make the trip I make every weekday whose not making on weekends is what makes weekends so special. No. I shall be brave. I shall get through today and tomorrow, somehow, without reading this novel that I'm smack-dab halfway through and had foreseen plowing onward toward the end over these two days. I've got lots of chores. I've got writing to do. I've got to organize my desk and get my act together, the latter a perennial and never accomplished chore.

I left the novel I'm reading on my friend's desk in Manhattan. I'm in Queens. I've got to hold out till Monday. I must be strong. I must think of other things.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Another one bites the dust

All of us little kids of 1950s Detroit, where he got his first break on a local lunchtime TV show, loved him. Now, watching some old Youtube videos from those days, I see that he was basically a Borscht Belt comedian cracking himself up doing old shtick, lots of it with a blue tinge that flew way over our heads. Well, what did we know? Except that he took a pie in the face better than anyone, and that the Soupy Shuffle cracked us up.

It feels pretty silly to end a week that was focused mostly on John Brown and crucially important historic events by plunging into nostalgia over a dead Vaudevillian and how his generation that my generation grew up laughing at is now mostly gone, but what can I say? Consistency is one of my virtues, except when it's not.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Pissed because they're dissed

Soon, but not today, I'll try to cook up the promised post regarding bookstores, Big Daddy Chain vs. Mom & Pop Indie. In the meantime, I want to add one thought to yesterday's comments about the retail chains' current price war on books and the resultant dismay among publishers and authors. The publishers' plaint is obvious. They're afraid of thinning profit margins. Any talk from them about the holy art object can be fairly disregarded. But what of the authors' reactions? The comments from Barbara Kingsolver and Stephen King about how lower book prices insult the authors? These I find not merely disingenuous but distasteful. I mean, really, are they arguing that the goodness, the cultural importance, the artistic contribution, the intellectual essence of their work is tied to the price? That the worth--not the economic value in terms of the market, but the essential artistic, cultural worth--of what they write is determined by how much it sells for? Really? How depressing, especially from Kingsolver, if in fact she said what she was quoted as saying. Now, I don't expect someone like her to share my vision of what the world ought to be like -- you know, the system in which everyone contributes according to her ability and gets according to her need, which need includes all the intangibles, food for the heart and mind as well as physical sustenance, the system in which production and distribution are based on fulfilling these human needs for all rather than providing riches for a few -- but I don't think you have to be a revolutionary socialist in order to be disappointed by this view that equates art's innate worth with its price tag. As a matter of fact I'd like to think that most "progressive" writers would wish their books, ideally, could be distributed for free. That, while most can't afford to give up the paltry pay they get from book sales, they'd agree that theoretically free books for all would be a good thing.

The issue of the artist's fair wage is a different matter altogether. But we, they, are not talking about the thousands and thousands of writers, the vast majority, that is, who make more or less nothing from their books, a whole other issue and surely one worth considering at some point. With regard to this brouhaha over Target selling cheap books, the only bank accounts affected, as far as I can see, are the big publishers' and the bestselling authors. In any case, this, the authors' rightful return, is not what Kingsolver and King addressed in the quotes I saw. They're simply pissed because they consider themselves to be dissed by the price lowering.

I guess it's just one more example of how capitalism distorts the artistic endeavor.

On the Harper's Ferry anniversary

My piece on the 150th anniverary of the raid on Harper's Ferry is up at Workers World newspaper.

Also, on Meredith Sue Willis's blog, there's an interesting report from Jeffrey Sokolow, who participated in the commemorative events last weekend in Harper's Ferry. I was very moved to read that 55 descendants of John Copeland, a Black participant in the assault on the arsenal who, like Brown, was hanged for it, took part; they laid and ceremonially washed a memorial stone for their ancestor of whom they are so justly proud. And that Brown's great great great granddaughter was also there; she read from her great great grandmother's account of the preparatory days in the house where the group clandestinely prepared for the action. One of the lesser known facts about John Brown is what a feminist consciousness he had. Annie Brown was a full participant in the planning and had a full vote in all decisions leading up to, though it's true that she did not take part in, the actual military action.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Remind me again why this is a bad thing?

Over the last few days a price war has broken out among several national retail chains. A price war over books. It started with Wal-Mart, spread to Target, and then to Sears. is also involved, surprise surprise, but it's the brick-and-mortar discount chain stores I want to focus on. A price war among the chains where the masses of working-class people shop is driving downward the cost of hardcover new releases. Granted, the pickings are slim. Very slim: the initial list is only six books, and they feature such fine fine authors as Michael Crichton, James Patterson and John Grisham. Oddly enough, Barbara Kingsolver's latest novel, The Lacuna, got in there somehow too.

OK, so Kingsolver aside, we're not talking literature. We're not talking art. But we are talking books, books that a lot of people like to read. Books that, thanks to this odd little price war, they're going to get a chance to buy at about one-third of the usual hardcover price.

It's hard for me to understand what might be the problem here. Books: good. Reading: good. Books getting into the hands of readers: good. Books getting into the hands of people who usually can't afford to read them: better yet. Yes? No, apparently, for much of the blogosphere and the literary world in general seems to be up in arms. They're outraged--outraged, I tell you!--that these dastardly corporations are practically handing out books to the masses. The complaints seem to focus on two points: (1) that "underpricing" books demeans them, devalues their authors' labor, creates a financial leveling effect that is unhealthy for the publishing industry; and (2) that "underpriced" books will drive ever more people into the big-box stores which in turn will drive ever more small independent bookstores out of business.

As to the first objection, I can't credit any part of it. Not the part about low retail prices implying disrespect for authors--not when the authors involved are blockbuster bestsellers, rolling in dough, and, except for Kingsolver (and, depending on your viewpoint, perhaps Stephen King), hacks--but in any case, that's not really the point. It's disingenuous to suddenly, because we're talking about books, act as though the prices of these commodities are set somehow differently than the prices of any other commodity in the market economy--that is, that book prices are based on or are somehow a reflection of the goodness of the product or its artistic excellence or some such. Profit is the sole issue, for both the retailer and the manufacturer. The workers whose labor creates the product--and in this ought to be included all the workers, not only the author, for example what about the workers in the paper mills and the binderies, why is the demeaning of their labor never mentioned, oh wait, it's because the industry already went on a union-busting spree in the 1980s and 90s and slashed their jobs, wages and benefits, why is this never mentioned and it's only ever the holy mind-work of the writers that must be protected from being besmirched in the marketplace--anyway, the workers whose labor creates the product never ever get back the value of what they created. The workers are not paid for what they create, for its value in the marketplace. They are paid the least the owner of the means of production can get away with, the mill and plant workers least of all, of course. The difference between what they're paid and the value of the product is where profit resides, in this case for the publishers. If the price is too low for the owners' profit margin to be as big as they'd like, the owners naturally cry bloody murder--and in this case they've got the lovely cover of defending the sanctity of art. It's no surprise at all to see them using hifalutin language to complain about the lowered prices. It's too bad, though, if writers get swept up in it. When writers get caught up in this folderol they're just doing the work of their own exploiters, the publishing companies. And jeez, haven't we all seen enough in the last months and years, with all the consolidation, monopolization, layoffs, shutdowns, cutbacks, all the brutal, ongoing repositioning in the publishing industry as its profit-takers do whatever's necessary to keep taking profits, to know better than to side with them?

Not that I'd side with the big retail chains either, of course. Don't get me wrong. I'm not a fan of the dastardly chains. But I couldn't care less which union-busting multinational megacorporation, say, Wal-Mart's or Bertelsmann, which owns Random House, rakes in more dollars.

I've gone on too long and I haven't gotten to the other point I wanted to address, the worry that the chains slashing book prices will contribute to the demise of more small independent bookstores. I'll come back soon with a thought or two about this.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Links you'll get to before me

The press of writing, writing-related tasks, and other stuff continues so these links will have to suffice for now. They have one thing in common. Each link is to something I haven't completely read (or in one case, listened to), so, with the exception of the first, I'm not vouching for them, literarily, politically or otherwise.

The one I can vouch for even before I sit down to hear it is this first blog-radio-cast by members of FIST--the youth group Fight Imperialism Stand Together. That's because it's hosted by my comrade Larry Hales, whose political depth and artistic acumen (besides being a leading activist and Marxist journalist, he's a fiction writer, a poet, and an expert and commentator on hip hop culture) I trust unconditionally. Here's a portion of the description of the blogcast:
We will discuss the March for Jobs on September 20, the tent city in soldiarity with the poor and unemployed, the various protests against the G20 and the police build-up and reaction to protesters [all in Pittsburgh last month]. Paradise Gray, legendary Hip hop activist, original member of the Hip hop group X-Clan and manager of entertainment for the legendary Hip hop club Latin Quarters, will be our special guest for the first segment. The second half hour will focus on the struggle in Honduras against the right-wing coup.
As I've admitted before, I'm hopelessly, pitifully, out of date and out of step regarding popular music, especially hip hop. So I'm looking forward to listening to this, hoping to learn something.

This one--The Honduran Coup: A Graphic History--was forwarded by a friend so let's hope it's good.

Back to the ever aggravating subject of electronic vs. bound-paper books. On which, having blogged my vacillating views several times, I have little new to say just now. Except that I must report that I had a hilarious phone conversation with my best friend last week in which she, with a faux quiver in her voice, called me a traitor and accused me of going over to the e-reading side. When I tried to defend myself, saying that I've made no such definitive leap but merely been persuaded that I ought to at least be open to arguments for the new technology's potential, and in any case since the day's long off when e-reading devices will be affordable and meet my other requirements the whole thing's a moot question, she snorted and harumphed and insisted I've betrayed her nevertheless, not to mention my dead mother. ... Anyway, on the e-reading front, there were two interesting pieces in the Times last week. This mini-symposium had ostensible experts addressing the question "Does the Brain Like E-Books?" Remember, sticking to today's theme, I haven't actually read this piece. But I did skim the opening sections and found David Gelernter's initial points intriguing. Especially this one: "I assume that technology will soon start moving in the natural direction: integrating chips into books, not vice versa." The next day came this report on just the development I've been wanting to see: libraries making books available for checkout onto e-readers. It's still on a small scale but it is in my view a move in the right direction.

Last, but on a topic that's been first on my mind these last few days, comes this news: Terry Bisson's 1988 SF/alternate history novel Fire on the Mountain is being reissued this month by PM Press. The story tells of how U.S. history went after the raid on Harper's Ferry led by John Brown succeeded, sparking slave rebellions as planned, leading to revolution and the establishment of socialism. I don't know why I'd never heard of this book before but it's now on my to-read list. The new edition has an introduction by death-row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The raid on Harper's Ferry

Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the raid on the U.S. Army arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, led by a toweringly heroic figure in the history of the struggle against racism, John Brown. I didn't and don't have time to compose a substantive blog entry on the meaning of this anniversary, partly because I'm working on an article about it for Workers World newspaper. I'm afraid the article won't do it justice either, due to time and space constraints, but I'll link to it once it's published. For now, for any who haven't read it, I commend you to A Voice from Harper's Ferry, written by one of the few participants who survived, Osborne P. Anderson, in a recently issued new edition featuring commentary from political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal and my comrade and WW managing editor Monica Moorehead.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Writer's recess

Things have been quiet here at Read Red this week because my writing life has overtaken my reading life, which is a good thing but has left me no time to blog. I'll try to get back here with a thought or two soon. Bear with me.

In the meantime, for any writers living in New York state, don't forget that the deadline to apply for a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship is coming up fast. It's a $7000 grant and every other year fiction is one of the categories--poets, you'll have your turn next year--so I'm busily working up my application. I've tried several times before, and I have no reason for optimism that this'll be my year. For one thing, they get scads, I'm talking thousands, of applications. For another, they're not favorably inclined toward explicitly political fiction. For another, the applications are not anonymous, and despite all NYFA's assurances that the judges are impartial even if they're mostly MFA professors and two-thirds of the applicants are or have been their students, I'm skeptical that an unknown shmuck like me has a real chance. Which impression was strengthened last night at my writing group, where one of the members told of having served on the judging panel a couple times, and how she was horrified at the way the other judges pushed for awards to applicants they knew personally even when their writing she for one didn't think had merit. Ah well. I'm going to try anyway. Seven thousand dollars would be an almost unimaginable pile of riches to Teresa and me, even after the Pentagon took its share out in taxes. Wish me luck. And the rest of you might as well give it a shot too.

Since I'm in writer mode, I'll throw this in before I leave for now. A few weeks ago I read Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, Julia Briggs' very interesting biography that, unlike all those besotted-with-Bloomsbury tomes, concentrates on Woolf the writer. If you can leave aside at least temporarily all thoughts about the contradictions that abound in her life and work, in order to ponder exclusively the question of how she did what she did, you'll find much to chew on in this book. I was struck for example by this:
She talked about the creative process, describing it as one of apparent inertia, of '"mooning," in which the artist as fisherwoman lets herself "down into the nosings about, feelings round, darts and dashes and sudden discoveries of that very shy and illusive fish the imagination." But the process is interrupted from time to time as the line slackens, and the diving imagination floats "limply and dully and lifelessly" to the surface, frustrated because it lacks sufficient experience, or because it is not allowed to say what it wants ...
The quotations are from a talk Woolf gave in 1931. Not to compare myself to the genius, of course, but her description here of what it's like to write hits home with me. I like it that, even if I can never hope to reach the depths or catch the prey she did, I'm fishing around down there in the same way.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Wood, Powers, fiction & science

The other day I read James Wood's recent New Yorker piece about the work of novelist Richard Powers. Many others have written many times about the many deficiencies of James Wood, who has ascended to top-dog position in the hierarchy of bourgeois literary critics, and I commend you to these commentaries, which are mostly written from a left angle. For my part, I'll add two thoughts about this latest Wood piece, on Powers.

One is that I sort of agree with one aspect of Wood's complaint about Richard Powers' novels, which I'd boil down in my own non-Woodian way to: they're brainy but heartless. Long on thought, short on feeling. At least with the Powers novels I've read, and to tell the truth I've stopped reading them for this very reason, I almost always failed to achieve any human connection to the characters. He didn't make me care about them. This is a huge failure of fiction to my way of thinking. But. I couldn't disagree more with Wood about the source of the problem. The problem is not that Powers is somehow too interested in scientific ideas, in technology and technological developments, in anatomy and biology and chemistry and genetics and evolution, too intent on exploring how we human animals, as agglomerations of cells, as loci of chemical reactions and electrical impulses, as hosts to millions of microscopic creatures, embody all this science. What a bunch of hogwash. Why in the world would such interest, such a fictional approach necessarily result in defective character development? Quite the contrary, I can imagine how it would, in a skilled writer's hands, enliven and bring new dimension to fictional characters. To me, there's little more fascinating than this stuff, and the challenge of incorporating it into vibrant, relevant fiction is one that I'm confident someone will rise to more successfully than Powers has. The problem with Powers' fiction, in my opinion, the reason it feels dead at its center, is, I think, that he fails to ground all the science in social reality and so all these ideas that should be terrifically exciting are never connected to the real life of this society in which his characters live. In a nutshell, he forgets the class struggle. He forgets that science and those who do science as well as those who are affected by what they do--all of it, all of us--are located inside class society. In this society, science is for profit. Ideas, inventions, research, none of it exists, at least not outside some thinker's head, except as it relates to the capitalist market. This is the missing element in Powers' fictions, I believe. Earlier, I said I've "almost always" felt unconnected to his characters. The one exception was the woman in his novel Gain who is dying of a disease caused by the products of a mega-corporation. In Gain, Powers alternates chapters between the history of the corporation and the story of this woman. In other words, in this book he does take explicit note of the role of the profit system. I'm guessing this is what made it come alive for me--well, every other chapter, anyway. I was fully drawn in to the chapters about the dying woman. I was bored and annoyed at the chapters about the corporation, but that's another story.

My second thought about Wood's New Yorker piece is a big loud yecch to the critic's condemnation of Powers for what Wood characterizes as "scientism." Is there a more reactionary word currently making the rounds of the establishment intelligentsia? One of those horrid neocons used it a while back in a New York Times Book Review piece about a book by, oh I forget whose book it was, Richard Dawkins or one of those types, and while there is much wrong with Richard Dawkins and his crew, and while they are fully in thrall to, their practice of science is shot through with, bourgeois ideology, I cannot abide an attack on Dawkins or anyone that rests on the assertion that too much science is a bad thing. That you can go overboard on all this science stuff. That objectivity, experimentation, rules of evidence, empirical study, an orientation to the material world is all somehow distasteful, unfair, mean to the rest of us who prefer to see and interpret the world through the gauze of emotion, sentiment, myths, dreams, superheros and so on. This word "scientism," this sneer from what we're supposed to understand to be the higher ground that would presume to claim for itself the ever so much more attractive title of "humanism" because, don't you know, it's much more humane to recoil at science's search for objective material explanations about the world we live in, I mean it just eckles me, as my dear old Yiddishe mammeleh used to say. The worst thing is that this word seems to be gaining popularity. I googled it and got 357,000 results. Among these are several definitions, all of which explain it more or less as the view that science is a preferable way to investigate and interpret the world than is mysticism, "faith," "spirituality," etc. Well my goodness, sounds eminently reasonable, especially when it's coupled with respect for those who prefer those other mystical approaches as in my experience it generally is, Dawkins et al notwithstanding, well my goodness then who could object to that? Lots of folks, it seems, neocon and liberal (i.e. literary idol Marilynne Robinson) alike, and here the master critic too; they're all joining in chorus to warn us against this ooh scary awful threatening new ism. Indeed, most of those 357,000 citations go to attacks on science and scientists for their allegiance to this most awful of crimes, this "scientism," this inhumane notion that science and not magic is the way to unlock the world's mysteries. Yecch and yecch again. And this James Wood character, this champion of the crusade against "scientism," the word itself a coinage whose every use functions as a smarmy slimy insult to the whole project of scientific inquiry, this is the guy to whom we're supposed to look for literary guidance?

Saturday, October 10, 2009

By way of occupying my attention

Books that talk about books: Last night I finished reading a sweet funny novel, Selfish and Perverse by Bob Smith. This book is a good example of how varied, at least in certain ways, is my literary taste. As I've protested before, I do not require every book I read to conform to some rulebook of communistically correct writing. Even if there were such a rulebook, so few if any of the English-language books available in the U.S. would meet its standards that I'd never have anything to read if I had such a requirement. Yes I prefer class-conscious politically aware literature, literature that advances the revolutionary cause, literature that illuminates the realities of life under capitalism and so on -- but I can also enjoy a well written story that falls short of that standard as long as it does not offend, as long as it does not ally itself with what is to me the enemy camp. Especially if it offers, as this novel about a decisive summer in the life of a 30-something gay would-be novelist, a lovely, lively comedy of manners shot through with a steady supply of bons mots and lots of heart. Selfish and Perverse has one other thing to recommend it: all the characters read, and talk about books and authors. I love it when a novel portrays reading as part of people's lives.

Books that want me to read them: I wondered if it would ever happen, and it did. Read Red seems to have landed on the radar screen of a book publicist, and in the last week or so I've received a couple of promotions offering to send review copies of new books. Funny that this happened at the same time that the government launched its new rule about bloggers having to announce it when the books they're writing about were provided to them free. I can't get worked up about that one way or the other but I will read (or at least start reading) the book I received yesterday and I will comment on it here and, believe me, I would have included in such comment a note that I'd been given a review copy even if it were not legally required. In any case it tickles me that somebody in the book biz thinks somebody out there might care what I have to say about one of their books. Let's not relieve them of this illusion, okay?

Although it's never a good idea to start with 'I haven't read this carefully': I do have to say it, though. I haven't read this carefully enough to be confident that I got the gist of it. But if the gist of it is, as it seems to be, that the state of California is pulling back on its harsh forced-labor workfare regulations in the face of the deepening economic crisis, I've got to say it's about time. Workfare is an abomination. Mandating it as part of the 1996 repeal of welfare--or rather, the 1996 anti-worker assault on one of the key prongs of the protections won by the struggles of the 1930s, an assault so reactionary and heinous that it took a Democratic administration to be able to pull it off--was one of the great crimes of the Clinton presidency, in fact in my opinion its greatest crime, and that's in an administration that can count among its accomplishments the war on and destruction of Yugoslavia, the continuous bombing of and murderous sanctions against Iraq, and the anti-gay twofer Don't Ask Don't Tell and the Defense of Marriage Act. Hell, I could go on and on about the horrors this guy foisted on us that his predecessors Reagan/Bush never even tried. Anyway. California. Workfare. Pulling back. Finally. The book I co-authored about the welfare repeal, workfare, and the struggle by workfare workers in New York City is over a decade old now, but if I may be so bold I do think it's still worth reading for a decent orientation on this issue. We Won't Be Slaves, available from

Do I really have to comment on the big book prizes? Nah, I think not. You've got your Nobel, generally a barometer of bourgeois-liberal trends. This year they gave it to a professional anti-communist, with a 20th-anniversary-of-the-fall dig thrown in for good measure although they never need a special occasion to support the literature that supports imperialism. And you've got your Man Booker Prize, which this time went to Hilary Mantel for her novel about Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, which, um ... oh, sorry, I fell asleep there for a minute. Which seems to answer my own question. No, I don't really have to comment.

Check out instead a small but meaningful prize. The Working People's Poetry Competition recently announced 2009 winners. First place went to Luke Salazar for his poem "Black Friday" about last year's awful crushing to death of a Wal-Mart guard on Long Island. The runner-up was a wonderful poem about the closing down of the coal industry, "The Canaries Go On Living" by Andrew Rihn, a friend of this blog. Also, check out Andrew's blog, Midwestern Sex Talk--and not just for the great title!

Here's a however for you

This is supposed to be the weekend I write write write, the writing interrupted only by household chores and errand running. I've been working on a story and I wanted to make a push to finish the first draft. With Teresa away and no pressing engagements, the idea was to really hunker down. You sense a however coming, don't you? Here it is.

With Teresa away and because of the nature of this particular trip, I can't seem to settle down and focus on writing. Too preoccupied with worrying about her safety and counting the hours till she gets back home. As I've already noted, she's in Honduras with a fact-finding/solidarity delegation. (In this photo from yesterday she's meeting with representatives of the anti-fascist resistance.) The situation in Tegucigalpa is volatile. Tense. Violent. So I find myself constantly checking for updates and emails, and watching the Spanish-language TV news, and so on. I couldn't be prouder of the work she does and the person she is, and if we can't be together on our 21st anniversary tomorrow there couldn't be a better reason, but I seem to be caught in a perfect storm of obstacles to concentrating on writing: my Jewish propensity for worrying and expecting the worst, combined with my habitual lack of discipline, combined with my perpetual fatigue, combined with the whole set of inexcusable excuses for not writing that I share with most other writers.

Apparently I came here to confess. And because blogging is the next best thing to writing. So there you have it. I'll try to make the best of it. For one thing, since I'm too jittery to sink into a storytelling trance, I'll see if I can't put together another blog post about some bookish matters. Who knows, maybe that'll settle me down and I'll manage to crank out a few hundred words yet.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Zeitoun & the truth

I just read Zeitoun by Dave Eggers. It's a mixed bag.

In this book Eggers recounts the true, and truly awful, story of what happened to Abdulrahman Zeitoun during and after Hurricane Katrina. What happened to Kathy Zeitoun, too, and their children, as a result.

Who is Abdulrahman Zeitoun? A small business owner; he ran and still runs a painting and contracting firm in New Orleans. An Arab-American; born and raised in Syria, he had at the time of these events lived in this country for over 10 years, a fully documented immigrant. A kind, loving friend, neighbor, family member. A hero: he spent several days after the levees broke paddling a canoe around New Orleans, rescuing people, mostly elderly people trapped in the upper floors and attics of their houses, and bringing water and food to other people as well as to some dogs. By all accounts, then, Zeitoun is a fine person. By this, Eggers', account, he is also without question a victim of sickeningly disgusting racism, brutality, all-round mistreatment and injustice at the hands of the state--the police state that rampaged through New Orleans during and after Katrina. What these marauders, unleashed to do their worst, did to him, and by extension to his family, especially Kathy Zeitoun who according to this book has been permanently broken by the ordeal, will make any decent person's blood boil. Several times as I read the story I found myself shaking with rage.

I'm not going into the details here. For the story itself, for the facts about what the armed state did to Zeitoun, it is worth reading this book.

But if it's facts you want, I'd advise you to stop before you get to the last few pages. For some reason--and I can only conclude that it's because Dave Eggers is a liberal and therefore cannot stick to the total truth, which is that what the cops, the National Guard, Homeland Security and FEMA did to Zeitoun was not an aberration but rather a direct expression of the capitalist state, and that it is exactly what the state is tending toward more and more--the last two or three pages turn into a nonsensical paean to the good life here in the USofA. In a bizarre passage that directly follows the most harrowing ones that tell, among other things, how Kathy is scared of everything now and how Zeitoun is terrified of being pulled over for a traffic violation, Eggers (supposedly channeling Zeitoun) writes:
"Abdulrahman Zeitoun existed before, and exists again, in the city of New Orleans and the United States of America. He can only have faith that [he] will never again be forgotten, denied, called by a name other than his own. ...

... Yes, a dark time passed over this land, but now there is something like light. Progress is being made. ...
Really? Progress is being made? What an absolutely false note Eggers strikes here. Does he not know the truth about New Orleans since Katrina? Or does he just not want to tell it? Is he that intent on a happy ending? On letting his beloved bourgeois democracy off the hook?

It so happens that last weekend I watched the movie Trouble the Water on DVD. This is a thoroughly laudable look, a thoroughly honest look unlike Eggers', at Katrina, viewed, as with Eggers' book, via the ordeal of one family. How does the movie end? Very differently than this book. The movie ends with a series of informational points filling in some of the story of what's happened since. For instance that most white families have moved back to New Orleans but most Black families have not been able to. That rents have quadrupled or more. How big business and realtors have controlled the rebuilding and kept out the poor. What happened and is still happening to Black youth in the prison system. This is not some concocted-out-of-whole-cloth lie about morning in America. This is the real deal, and it is not pretty.

What was done to Zeitoun should enrage you. For the bigger picture, which Dave Eggers can't or doesn't want to see, take a look at Trouble the Water.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

To Tegucigalpa

Late tonight a fact-finding delegation will fly from New York to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to observe, gather evidence and learn about the critical situation there, three months after a military coup ousted the elected president. I would support this mission regardless, but my lover Teresa Gutierrez is one of its members, so I have a personal stake in, a deep personal concern about, its safety. Do me, and, more important, the Honduran resistance, a favor. Go here for information on how to show solidarity with the delegation.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Why more links?

Because it's a new week and I've been spending my own words on fiction, that's why. Here, then, are some other people's words.

This is intriguing enough that I've added Manituana to my maybe-read list. By all accounts I've now skimmed, and it turns out there have been several, this is a novel worth checking out. But all accounts are not yet in. I'd like to see a Native reviewer's take on it. I'd also like to know why the collective author, four Italians, is going by what appears to be a Chinese name, Wu Ming.

What don't I want to know? What zillionaire Arianna Huffington is reading. Is there any reason I ought to care?

What doesn't the New York Times seem to know? That arresting people for organizing protest demonstrations is something other than "the response of law enforcement." I'm not going to use the F-word, because I don't agree with those who characterize the state of things in this country as fascism, but the ever rightward creep has been taking some mighty big leaps. Toward my neck of the woods. Hey, I live in Queens. I own books, newspapers and electronic equipment. Also a picture of Lenin--and of Trotsky! I go to demonstrations, and I email and text about them. Yikes!

A couple of writer/bloggers, and their commenters, have been carrying on a meaningful conversation about white writers and writers of color and people of color characters. Here, and here, and here.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Mercedes Sosa's beautiful voice is silenced

Mercedes Sosa, the luminously brilliant singer who lent her voice to the cause of resisting the Chilean and Argentine fascist juntas in the 1970s, died today. A sad loss for the culture of our class.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Weekender links

Tonight in Woodside, Queens: a benefit for Typhoon Ondoy Disaster Relief efforts sponsored by a range of Filipino organizations. There's a lineup of spoken-word, musical and dance artists, and all proceeds go to MIGRANTE International in the Philippines, a non-profit group working directly with survivors. Find more information on the typhoon's aftermath from a left political perspective at the Bayan USA and the Gabriela USA websites.

The State Department
won't let the New York Philharmonic's rich donors accompany the orchestra to Havana, so the orchestra isn't going.

Read the statement by the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network in support of yesterday's Palestinian general strike.

Head over to Contra James Wood for a class-conscious, or at least a corporate-conscious, angle on one of the many limitations of the "Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)" list recently issued by The Millions.

Speaking of James Wood, here are some worthwhile thoughts (not his) on the novel.

This is more than a week old, so look elsewhere for up-to-date coverage of the University of California walkouts, but check out Laila Lalami's piece for helpful background.

Finally, someone in the film industry, a woman of course, dissents from the Auster-Rushdie-Allen-Scorsese crowd's inexcusable defense of child rapist Roman Polansky. The Village Voice's chief movie writer has some choice words as well.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Happy 60th Birthday, People's Republic of China

In lieu of devoting the kind of time to thoughtful blogging this massive topic deserves, which sadly but as per usual I just don't have, I offer up this video from October 1, 1949, featuring Mao Zedong and Chou Enlai presiding after the spectacular victory of the Red Army. And these links:

Here is Mao's talk to the party the week before the victory parade.

The Empire State Building shone red and yellow last night in honor of the occasion. The Chinese community in New York, even though some of them or their parents or grandparents left China for political reasons, overall still has a strong loyalty to and bond with the PRC. (For example, the student aide here in the office where I work was telling me that her folks left China in the 1970s but that they still support the revolution; in particular, based on their experiences in the 1960s during the Cultural Revolution, the period most maligned by imperialist propaganda and literature but which they along with the mass of the population saw as an effort to move toward full social equality, they feel allied with the PRC to this day.) Along with that and the feelings of patriotism occasioned by this anniversary, there is also currently an upswell in pride because of John Liu's primary election victory Tuesday in the race for city comptroller, which he will now handily win in the general election, making him the first Asian-American to hold citywide office here. And so it was politic of the skyscraper's owners to display the colors. For which they were attacked widely on the TV news last night and in the city's daily rags today.

Here's an interesting and informative, albeit of course bourgeois biased, report on one of the few remaining agricultural communes in China.

Here's a talk given by one of my comrades at Workers World Party's national conference two years ago. It's a good summary of our view of the situation in China in the present period, and of the reasons for optimism as we "look forward to a resurgence of communism inside China."

While the PRC celebrates its 60th, this year WWP and its newspaper Workers World mark their 50th anniversary. The very first issue of Workers World, issued in March 1959, had as its front page headline: "Hail the Communes!" (WWP is not considered a Maoist organization but has always supported the Chinese along with every other socialist revolution; revolutionary internationalism is a central tenet.)

Here's an earlier blog post of mine listing some of the invaluable books about the Chinese Revolution.