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


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. 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
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.