Friday, February 27, 2009

B&N fronts for ICE

Last week Barnes & Noble fired 50 warehouse workers at its Reno, Nevada distribution center in a vile fronting operation for the racist Gestapo-style federal agency ICE--Immigration Control & Enforcement, the Homeland Security agency charged with terrorizing impoverished immigrants whose crime is trying to survive and feed their families. According to this brief report, B&N officials worked with ICE to uncover which of its employees were undocumented, and then dumped them all.

The ongoing ICE raids around the country--sweeps and imprisonment of up to hundreds of workers at a time, almost all of them Latino, Asian/Pacific or Afro-Caribbean, breaking up families, throwing thousands of kids into the foster care system--constitute one of the ongoing outrages, one of the hidden-in-plain-sight horrors that somehow the vast majority of people in this country manage to know nothing about. Barnes & Noble is now complicit.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I would prefer not to

Maybe I'm grumpy because the darling Carla didn't win Top Chef last night (and I got to bed too late after watching), but I find much to annoy me today.
  • There's the Pen/Faulkner Award for Fiction going to Netherland, a novel adored by one and sundry except for me. In a November blog post I called it "one more postcolonial fantasy of what life is like for those driven across the world by the crimes of colonialism--as told by the inheritor of the riches stolen from their forebears."
  • There's the announcement of the nominees list for the 2009 Orwell Prize, the website of which features this bit from George: "What I have most wanted to do ... is to make political writing into an art." They really ought to specify which type of political writing he was talking about: anti-communist. To. The. Max.
  • There's this fawning Times piece on an upcoming Zoe Heller novel that equates leftist political commitment with mindless dogmatic religiosity and has the hero find her way out of activism and toward god. Note to self: place on don't-read list. P.S. I found Notes on a Scandal to be pretty damned anti-lesbian, with the character played in the movie by Judi Dench a throwback to the bad old days of the likes of The Killing of Sister George.
  • There's the news that Richard Nash is leaving Soft Skull Press/Counterpoint. He's brought out some great books at Soft Skull. And he'd invited me to send him my manuscript a couple years ago. Not that he ever got to it. I picture it buried at the foot of a teetering, towering pile. Still, a faint hope remained. Till now.
As my lunch hour ends and I buckle back down to the endless shuffling of papers, the meaningless data and word processing, the pointless parade of minutiae that takes up the majority of my waking life at each step of which I mumble to myself Bartleby's immortal words, this, at least, brings a smile.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Good book or great book?

I just realized the difference. Or, so as not to be grandiose in my expounding, maybe not so much between a good book and a great book, because what do I know about such stuff. But the difference between a good reading experience and a great reading experience. Subjectively. Speaking for myself only. Here it is.

If I'm in the midst of a great read, I can barely think about anything else. I wake up dying to get back to the book. All through the day's work it lurks behind the nonsense toward which I'm forced to direct my mind. Most of all, I dread the ending. I want to never stop reading this wonderful book. I wish I could keep turning its magical pages forever.

If the read is merely good, my mind starts wandering a bit as I move through the second half. As I proceed, I start a running countdown of how many pages are left. Most of all, with the turn of each page, I'm in a rush of impatience to be done with it. I itch to start reading another book. If I have a particular book in mind, if a book I have high hopes for is waiting its turn, the itch turns well-nigh unbearable. I'm in such a state at the moment. I very much like the book I'm reading. But another beckons. I'm late! I'm late! For a very important date!

Mekong River Literature Prize

Offhand, I can't think of any postwar Vietnamese novels or poetry I've read, which is an admission I'm ashamed to make. I've read a fair amount of nonfiction about Vietnam, and only recently saw a brutally honest film about the ongoing effects of the U.S. war against that country--specifically how Agent Orange continues to devastate the populace, with great numbers of each new generation still, to this day, being born with horrific disabilities as a result of the Agent Orange poisoning that saturates the land, water, air. I know there's a great tradition of Vietnamese poetry and fiction; what I don't know is whether much of it has been translated into English and published in this country. Other, that is, than counter-revolutionary lit, of which there is always a surfeit.

Last week the Vietnamese Writers' Association awarded the 2008 Mekong River Literature Prize to four writers. They are novelists Nguyen Tri Huan for Dong Song Cua Xo Net (The River of Xo Net); Trinh Thanh Phong for Canh Dong Chum (The Plain of Jars); and poets Nguyen Anh Ngoc and Pham Sy Sau for five poetry collections between them. I'm looking into whether any of these works is yet available in English. I'm not too hopeful.

The Book of Salt, by the Vietnamese-American writer Monique Truong, which came out a few years ago, is one of my favorite novels. Perhaps I'll write about it in more detail at some point. It is exquisite and deserves more than cursory mention, but it is an English-language novel originally published in the U.S. and so quite different than the works honored this month in Vietnam.

Stop the Haiti deportations

Here is more information about the terrible crisis of mass deportation of 30,000 Haitians. Here is a petition to stop the deportations. And here is a video that pretty much says it all about the plight of these refugees.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Edward Upward

He was 105 years old, I'd never heard of him until he died, but now I'm dying to read his work.

I just read obituaries in The Guardian and the New York Times of British writer Edward Upward, who died earlier this month. He was, I've learned, a contemporary and friend of Auden, Spender and Isherwood, and a gifted writer whose work, I'm inferring with the sort of peeking between the lines that is second nature to a red reader, never received the attention it deserved because it was brazenly partisan on the side of socialism. Upward was a communist. According to the Times, "Leonard and Virginia Woolf published his first book but rejected his second, saying there was too much Communism in it." So okay, it's right there in the lines, not between them.

There's much here, about his life, his politics, and his art, that intrigues me. Not least the fact that he eventually left the Communist Party, if the Guardian account is to be believed, because it was veering too far to the right. Some of his work, including what sounds like it may be his masterpiece, the 1938 novel Journey to the Border, is still available and in print. I'm also drawn to one of his later works, a 1977 novel with a wonderful title that I really relate to: No Home But the Struggle. I'm going to try to get my hands onto one or both.

UPDATE: I just took out Journey to the Border from the university library. Also nabbed Spiral Ascent, the trilogy of which No Home But the Struggle is the final part. Both are literally caked with dust. Neither has ever been checked out before. Kind of puts in perspective my difficult quest to get my novel published--why all the angst when no one reads communist fiction even if it is published?

Well, I'm reading these. Or giving them a shot, anyway. I have no idea whether I'll like Upward's writing. Hope I do.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Mass deportations of Haitians

Sometimes I have to stray from the literary, from the arts altogether. Like when the United States government, racist hounding of the most vulnerable workers department a.k.a. Immigration Control and Enforcement, moves against a mass of impoverished immigrants. It's going on right now. ICE is at this moment in the process of deporting thirty thousand Haitian immigrants. Their crime is being poor and oppressed, having left their country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, in search of work and survival. It's no coincidence that they're Black, either.

What a contrast to the treatment of the Cuban counterrevolutionaries who enter this country equally without documents.

Organizing to defend the 30,000 Haitians is under way. I'll post more when I know of it.

Friday, February 20, 2009

My Oscar prediction WAS WRONG!

Oscar loves Israel. Hey, especially Israel in its anguished touchy-feely guise. So Waltz With Bashir is pretty much a shoo-in for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film Sunday night.

That's a damned shame, as this review from ElectronicIntifada makes clear. The crux:
To say that Palestinians are absent in Waltz With Bashir, to say that it is a film that deals not with Palestinians but with Israelis who served in Lebanon, only barely begins to describe the violence that this film commits against Palestinians. There is nothing interesting or new in the depiction of Palestinians--they have no names, they don't speak, they are anonymous. But they are not simply faceless victims. Instead, the victims in the story that Waltz With Bashir tells are Israeli soldiers. Their anguish, their questioning, their confusion, their pain ... So while Palestinians are never fully human, Israelis are, and indeed are humanized through the course of the film. ...

In the final analysis, this is what Waltz With Bashir is about: the evasion of responsibility.
Update: I'm happy to say that I was wrong. Waltz With Bashir did not win the Oscar for best foreign-language film. How about that! Small bits of good news.

Utterly lame, Mr. Murakami

Earlier this week, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami went to the so-called Jersualem International Book Fair in so-called Israel, which is actually nothing more nor less than occupied Palestine, to accept the so-called, get this, Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society. This is so sad and awful on so many levels it's hard to know what to be more appalled at. The horror of holding a book fair, posing as a celebration of freedom of the arts, in occupied Jerusalem? The name of the prize, which I would have assumed was a parody coming as it does from one of the least free, most racist, repressive societies on the planet, if I didn't know it was for real? Or the fact that Murakami accepted it, and in person?

In an open letter to Murakami issued just before he went to Jerusalem, the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel appealed to him to "Please turn your attention to the Palestinians, who are being denied their freedom and dignity as human beings." He did not do so, despite also receiving such requests from Palestinian and Japanese groups.

Instead he not only accepted the award, he gave an appalling talk trying to justify himself. Salon, posting it, characterizes it as a "powerful speech." In what universe? By my read, Harukami's ramble is an illucid effort at rationalizing what he's now become, an artist who aligns himself with the oppressor. He can blah blah blah all he likes about 'we writers are rebels and if someone tells us not to do something we must do it,' but this is meaningless posing, posturing, and it just doesn't fly. He can talk about eggs and walls and claim to side with those who'd tear down walls, but saying it as he did from within the embrace of the wall erectors, it just won't wash. He's taken a side, and it's the wrong side. He's given legitimacy to the occupiers. He can't nimble-tongue it away.

I haven't liked any of his books since The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

'For students who work 3 jobs'

The student occupation of NYU's Kimmel Center is now in its third day. The students are holding strong despite the union-busting, exorbitantly expensive, reactionary university administration's moves against them, including cutting off electricity and contact with the outside. I'll be taking my lunch hour at noon to attend a support demonstration. From the Take Back NYU website, here's an excerpt from a recent statement on behalf of the occupation:
This is for the students who work three jobs to attend the school of their dreams. This is for the students in Gaza, whose university is destroyed and [who] can no longer study. This is for workers in Abu Dhabi building our facilities with no human rights to speak of. We are a global university and our actions are connected to world events, whether we like it or not. It is our responsibility. We have voices. Let's use them.
UPDATE: As of 1:30, all the students have been ousted from the Kimmel Center. NYU moved against them, swiftly and brutally, physically removing most of them. The administration has informed all students who took part in the occupation that they are suspended from school, and is at this moment evicting from student housing any who live in NYU buildings.Here is Take Back NYU leader Farah Khimji speaking to the press moments after she was roughed up by NYU security and dragged out of the building. She and the other occupation leaders vowed to keep up the fight, both for their original demands and for amnesty for all participants.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Speaking of the racist North ...

... the New York Post's disgusting cartoon yesterday equating President Obama with a monkey has ignited rage against the reactionary Murdoch rag. Today at noon there was a protest at the Post's offices in midtown Manhattan, called by City Councilmember Charles Barron of Brooklyn. There was no way I could get there and back to work on my lunch hour, but I've heard from some folks who did go that it was big and spirited, and that nobody is backing away from the anger. This isn't going to go away. Another protest may be in the offing soon.

Linking up with Rutgers-Newark

It's pure coincidence that both of these have to do with professors at Rutgers University-Newark.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Caryl Churchill's play for Gaza

Predictably, the playwright Caryl Churchill is under attack for her 10-minute theater piece titled "Seven Children: A Play for Gaza," currently being staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London. I salute her, not only for writing it but for making the text available for free to anyone who wants to perform it. Tickets to the Royal Court production are free; the performance is followed by a collection for Medical Aid for Palestinians.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Mission accomplished: The Crab-Canning Ship

Recently, after much fluttery anticipation, I read the 1929 novella The Crab Canning Ship by the Japanese novelist and communist activist Takiji Kobayashi. Publication of this book led directly to Kobayashi's 1933 assassination by the imperial secret police. Currently, there's a resurgence of interest in and reading of this novel in Japan, spurred by increasingly difficult conditions for workers.

Let me not be coy: I loved it. It's short, almost brutally so in the way it leaves the reader yearning for more, but it tells a powerful story. Some of the passages are so alive with the smells, tastes, sounds on board the hellish factory ship from which workers net crabs, and on which they process and can the shellfish, that they made me feel physically sick. Also the portrayal of the workers' suffering, their physical ills, their filth, hunger, thirst, exhaustion--it's visceral, it has a stark, intense immediacy. And then when they start to organize, when they rebel against the officers and the crab-canning company's supervisors, well, it's quite thrilling.

Kobayashi's book reminded me very much of the great 1925 movie "Battleship Potemkin" by Sergei Eisenstein, especially the shipboard scenes of horror and then worker unity and revolt.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Shameless self-promotion

I've been blogging a lot, and not writing enough, and although the two take up different pieces of my time, energy and creativity, blogging basically being a lunch-hour activity in a way that fiction writing can never be for me, still, things have tipped too far. So I plan to flip the equation over the three-day weekend. There's a story I've been working on for a long time and would very much like to finish. It has to do with the Palestinian struggle. Three days to try to get it done, or at least get it into good enough shape to be able to take to my writing group next week for critique. I almost never meet these sorts of artificial deadlines, but I do want to put in several good writing sessions. If I don't get the thing completely done I will at least move a goodly ways toward that goal. Let's hope.

So until next week, here's this: two stories of mine have just been published in literary magazines.

My story "John and Yoko and Rowena and Me" is in the Fall 2008 issue of Cream City Review. (The website hasn't yet been updated to show the new issue but the info on how to get a copy doesn't change.)

My story "The Typist's Widow" is in the 2009 issue of Stone Canoe. (The website does show the new issue, except in the 'how to purchase' section, but, as with CCR, what's up there is accurate. ... Isn't it cute how I imagine someone reading this blog might want to buy these journals to read my work?)

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Batwoman's a lesbian

Not that I truly care. For one thing, she's a lipstick lesbian, like those shiny plastic gals over at "The L Word" whose soap opera I couldn't follow even if I wanted to since we can't afford Showtime. Not, in other words, like any real live lesbian worker I've ever known in the real live world.

Nor, despite occasional feeble tries, have I been able to make myself interested in comic books. Loved them--especially Superman and Supergirl, Green Lantern, Aquaman and various other Justice League of America stalwarts--when I was a kid. Now, um, not so much.

Still, this is kind of a hoot. The gay Gotham gal was unveiled at Comic Con in New York this week.

The fact of evolution

As has been noted far and wide, today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. To mark it, here's a link to a fascinating 1983 article about Marx and Darwin by the late, great Marxist thinker and writer Sam Marcy. One of the points Sam made is that "scientists debate how evolution occurred, not if it occurred." This is key, I think, in exposing the absurdity of the so-called "creation science" position, if any further exposing is necessary. The religious reactionaries who seek equal public-school time for teaching their favorite mythology as if it were just another among many scientific theories love to talk about "the theory of evolution." Evolution is a fact. Proven over and over again with such an imposing wealth of evidence that there can be no debate. The only theories are about evolution's mechanics--that is, precisely how it works. Me, I find these debates, about the mechanisms of evolution, really really interesting, and love reading about them.

I also loved reading Darwin's own book The Origin of Species, which I tackled two years ago and was surprised to find completely accessible.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


My review of the movie Milk is up at Workers World newspaper.
"Milk" is a rare film for, from the viewpoint of partisans for LGBT liberation, it deserves the acclaim it's received. Although it is ostensibly about the title character, this is really a movie about something much bigger than one person.

This is a movie about an oppressed group organizing and fighting back.


February 12, 2009, is the 100th anniversary of the founding of the NAACP. An early campaign by the group came in 1915, when they built a boycott against director D. W. Griffith's vile celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, the movie Birth of a Nation. Speaking, as is my wont, of art and politics, this film is a great example of the racism and hypocrisy of the arts establishment in this country. To this day, the movie makes lists of the greatest ever. Its apologists insist that it is an unparalleled artistic achievement and that its content is beside the point. The courageous protesters of 1915 knew better. Lynchings were rampant throughout, though not limited to, the South, and Birth of a Nation was propaganda to justify this crime. Twenty-four years later came another piece of "art" that emulated the Griffiths opus, a movie that is still celebrated by film historians and critics, to their shame. That was the technicolor ode to the slaveocracy, Gone with the Wind. Margaret Mitchell, the author of GWTW the book, always said Birth of a Nation was her favorite movie.One of the NAACP's founders, and editor of its magazine Crisis for the next 25 years, was the great historian, writer and activist Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois. I highly recommend the biography of Du Bois by David Levering Lewis. OK, I admit I've only read part one, W.E.B. Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race, but it was truly fascinating and I plan to read part two. The works of Du Bois himself are many, widely known, and beyond commentary by the measly likes of me. Except to say that his magnificent 1935 book Black Reconstruction in America is in my opinion one of the great works of Marxist history in English--even though he wouldn't join the Communist Party for another 26 years, which he did in 1961 at age 93. Du Bois's masterful research, his mustering of factual information, is put to brilliant analytical use in exploring and explaining the breathtaking rise and shattering fall of Reconstruction. The only other work I've read that's anywhere near comparable in scope, ambition and scholarly achievement in service of the class struggle is E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, which was published in 1963, the year Du Bois died. I wonder if Thompson studied Du Bois's work and learned from his methodology. I'd be surprised if he didn't.

M.I.A. & the Tamil struggle

In today's New York Times there's a frontal attack on M.I.A. for her supposed support of the Tamil national liberation movement. Now, I'm so out of touch with rap and hip hop that it's downright embarrassing; with not nearly enough exceptions, I've never really moved beyond the 1970s in my musical taste. Nor am I very familiar with the Tamil Tigers. This much I do know: when an oppressed nationality is waging an armed struggle for self-determination, chances are nearly 100% that they are my comrades. The Times article, of course, brands the Tamil Tigers as terrorists. This is standard operating procedure. It's the same way the bourgeois press treats the New People's Army of the Philippines, the FARC-EP of Colombia, and any other force fighting for the mass of workers, peasants and oppressed people. When an artist takes a stand for such a struggle, in fact uses her art to promote it, my oh my they go downright ballistic.

As for me, I salute M.I.A. with all my heart. It looks like I may have to leap out of my soul-music comfort zone and pick up one of her records.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

One last tussle with Mr. AYW

In a series of earlier posts prompted by an email exchange a couple months ago with an acclaimed young writer, I've addressed the hollow bourgeois heart of the assertion, proclaimed always and everywhere by the literary establishment in this country, that art and politics don't mix, that literature cannot succeed as art if it is political. I've noted that this assertion is simply that, with never any proof to back it up. I've argued that the class struggle pervades everything, including art, and that there is no such thing as a neutral stance in literature any more than in any other field of endeavor. I've countered the anti-political-art cant with some examples of highly political work--both reactionary and progressive--that this selfsame literary establishment itself recognizes as fine art, which shows that even they don't believe their own dogma.

What's left are two points, more or less. One is to address the question of why they promulgate this lie despite its so extremely obvious falseness. The other is to counter with some reasoning with which we can once and for all dispose of this whole sad spectacle of artists fronting for the capitalist class's interests.

1. Why? When they themselves love and laud overtly political fiction across the bourgeois spectrum, from Solzhenitsyn to Diaz, why do they claim overtly political fiction can never succeed? Much of it, of course, is unthinking. It's a sort of rote repetition of received wisdom. Its source, however, is no mystery. It is bourgeois ideology, which is the underpinning of all culture under capitalism. I'm not talking conspiracy theories; I'm not saying there are secret meetings where the billionaires hand out envelopes to MFA professors with their marching orders. I'm talking the concrete as well as the subjective workings of class society, in which all norms, culture, beliefs, the whole shebang, arise from and are owned and controlled by the ruling class, either directly or indirectly.

What threatens the rule of the capitalist class? Well, ultimately, revolution of the workers and oppressed. But even before it gets to that point, any expression, artistic or otherwise, that can find its way out into the world and find a way to dissent from bourgeois ideology, that takes the side of the working class, that exposes not only the terrible ills of this racist, exploitive society but, much more important, identifies their cause, that is, capitalism, that espouses overthrowing this horrid system of oppression and exploitation--boy oh boy, anything like that has got to be quashed. That's the why. It's one part of the capitalists' ongoing battle to save their system and thus their riches. It's what motivates the ongoing war against truly political art, even as they champion right-wing and can allow the championing of mildly left-wing political art.

2. Which leads to the how. How do they enforce the almost complete banning of truly revolutionary literature? By spreading the big lie that such cannot be art.

So here's the truth: oh yes it can.

I'm not a literary scholar, so I'm at something of a disadvantage in this polemic, but I do know that nowhere throughout the rest of the world is this literature-can't-be-political nonsense taken seriously. Much, possibly even most, fiction, and even more so poetry, written in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, and even to some extent in Europe, has a clear political slant. Much of it espouses revolutionary ideas and ideals. Most of it is never translated into English or published in this country. Hmm. I wonder why.

Except if the author is dead and/or the struggle with which her/his work occupies itself is sufficiently distant in time and geography to pose no threat to U.S. imperialism. I'm thinking of Bolano, whose The Savage Detectives I found utterly unalive, quite inferior to some truly fine fiction about the U.S.-backed Pinochet fascist junta in Chile, and who, guess what, is championed as the great dead Latin American "political" novelist.

Then there are writers whose work is truly radical, Marxist writers even, but whom the U.S. critical establishment manages to at once praise and marginalize as if their work is of only local interest in their own part of the world and of no real relevance or threat here. I'm thinking of, among others, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, whose marvelous novel Wizard of the Crow I recently read. This book is brilliant on many levels. And it is nothing if not political. My guess is that in this country it is read simplemindedly as a parody of "African corruption," rather than in its true, complete aspect as a head-on, full-throttled, multifaceted expose of British colonialism and U.S. imperialism and what they have wrought in the lands they've ravaged. Or at least that this is how they hope to co-opt it.

Finally, wearily, we come to this. In his email to me, the Acclaimed Young Writer backed up the literature-can't-be-political assertion with this example: debate team captains, he said, can't become novelists because they can't create complex, subtle, literary writing. Well jeez, I've been dying to reply, sez who? Is this truly all you've got? A claim that a debater can't become a novelist, not a good one, anyway? Wouldn't it be fun if someone did some research and found out which novelists did indeed serve on their high school or college debate teams? I'm betting there are plenty. But I shouldn't make fun of his point, because surely he didn't mean to say something as goofy as that debaters can't be good writers. What he meant, I believe, was that writing fiction is different than debating. And of course he's right. Fiction is different than debate. Although of course it's not true that debaters can't also be novelists, debating and fiction writing do require different skill sets. They are, as it were, different arts.

Dig one level deeper, pooped as we are, and we reach his real meaning. A debater should win listeners over to a point of view, a political belief. A novelist should not.

Why not? He does not and cannot say, for it would require acknowledging that his supposedly apolitical position is in fact a political position.

So there you have it. Not a proof that fine fiction cannot be political, for we've already seen there are scads of examples of fine fiction that is indeed politically motivated, politically expressive, and politically oriented. (Okay, I've listed not quite scads, but I could if anyone requires more proof, more lists.) Just a precept. It should not be.

It would not be good for capitalism. Even if he doesn't, won't, can't acknowledge it, this is the crux of Mr. AYW's case.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Greece: 'rebellion also in art'

Do political struggle and art have anything to do with each other? It looks like people in the land where some art forms originated think so. The opera house of Athens has been taken over by rebelling workers and students, and is currently in a state of occupation. The occupiers see their action as a continuation of December's massive rebellions that shook Greece--a continuation in the realm of the arts, which they seek to liberate.
December's rebellion, while drawing strength from all previous social struggles, laid the ground for a generalized resistance against everything that offends us and enslaves our lives. ... Nothing is finished; our rage perseveres. ... Rebellion in the streets, in schools and universities, in labor unions, municipal buildings and parks. Rebellion also in art. ... To recover and reclaim the culture that has been stolen from us.
For the full statement and more details as of yesterday, follow this link.

The specter haunts again

President Obama is frequently compared to FDR in terms of the crisis he has inherited and the challenge of addressing it. There's one big difference, however. The working class was in motion by the time Roosevelt took office, some three years after the start of the Great Depression. Such massive motion that the capitalist system was in danger of toppling. This is what pushed that president to move swiftly and aggressively to shore up the system with unprecedented jobs programs, new worker safety nets like welfare, Social Security, and unemployment benefits, and so on. He had to save capitalism. And he did (with the added help of an imperialist world war).

In contrast, this current crash is too new to have yet resulted in widespread working-class action. It will, without a doubt. But at this moment the capitalist class is still too cocky, too drunk with the easy riches it's been rolling in, to see the peril that lies ahead. And so the pressure on this president is from the top, to do the minimum necessary to keep the profits flowing. Thus the recent spectacle of a phony political debate over a "stimulus plan" that offers massive tax breaks for corporations and creates so few jobs that it will make only a dent in the cascade of layoffs staggering the workers.

Not surprisingly, European rulers are more nervous. They've endured revolutions. Their countries have much stronger unions. Their workers and students take to the streets when their rights and benefits are threatened. And so voila: their old nemesis Karl Marx graced the cover of Time magazine's Feb. 2 European edition. Guess what? He's coming soon to a capitalist's nightmare near you too!

Friday, February 6, 2009

Black History Month: Dancing in the Dark

Nerd that I am, I felt compelled to check how many books I've read so far in this young year. Six. OK, I'm satisfied, especially since one was pretty fat and took a couple of weeks to read. Not that you asked, but here they are: Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Phillips, Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o, The Crab-Canning Ship by Takiji Kobayashi, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, and The Scar of David by Susan Abulhawa. I plan to blog about Ngugi's and Kobayashi's books soon, and I already have about Abulhawa's. Petterson's, I regret to say, I found negligible, occasional prettily constructed sentences aside. Yates's was highly readable and quite compelling as an artifact of the 50s. Yet I strongly suspect that Yates didn't write the same book I read--a biting critique of the shallow, vacuous, hypocritical and supremely sexist society through which the main characters move as personified by the husband Frank, a vile character if ever there was one--so I'd be off the mark if I attempted much meaningful commentary.

Then there's Dancing in the Dark.

For Black History Month

Phillips' 2005 novel is remarkable. Another that in my opinion didn't receive its due attention. So I thought I'd do my tiny part to take note of Dancing in the Dark in recognition of Black History Month.

The novel is a fictionalized telling of the life of the great actor/singer/dancer/composer/lyricist Bert Williams. By all accounts, Williams was one of the most, if not the most, gifted stage actors of the early 20th century Vaudeville era. He was also Black, and in his artistic life he was trapped in a tragic contradiction.

For Bert Williams was known far and wide for his performance in blackface. During most of his early career, he worked in a duo with his artistic partner and best friend George Walker. In the novel, Phillips depicts increasing friction between them over the direction Williams and Walker would take--further into what is portrayed as minstrelsy-based and demeaning stereotype or, as Walker wishes and community leaders increasingly urge, striking out in a new direction. As the years pass, both men, along with their families and stage troupe, are deeply damaged to the depths of their souls by what comes more and more to seem an inescapable trap, the blackface roles demanded by white audiences, which bring them fame and some degree of fortune but at terrible psychic cost.

Williams hit the height of stardom in 1910 when he became the first Black artist signed on by the Ziegfeld Follies. In the novel, he endures continuing slights from his co-stars even as he draws huge audiences and helps make everyone rich. Offstage he reads. He drinks. He cannot meet his wife's emotional needs; he cannot meet her eyes, or his own in the mirror. He drinks and he drinks. He is a brilliant creative artist driven to despair by the racist constrictions on his art from which he feels it is impossible to break free.

Now, a century on, Bert Williams is recognized by theater historians as one of the greatest of the great, a huge huge talent. But there is always that asterisk, that what if, for his was a talent that was not permitted to blossom beyond the boundary of blackface dictated by racist society. Phillips' novel conveys this all too well. It's well worth reading.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Scar of David

I just read an important yet, to my outrage, little-known novel: The Scar of David by Susan Abulhawa. This book tore me up. Reading the last pages as I ate dinner last night, I had to set it aside because I was crying too hard to swallow my food without choking. After I picked it back up and finished this searing, painful, beautifully written book I had to sit quietly for a long time until I calmed down and could function again. Now that's what reading fiction should be. Losing yourself in a story that tells the truth. A story that matters. A story that grips you and transports you.

A necessary story.

The Scar of David brings to life the experience of the last 61 years of exile and suffering endured by the Palestinian people, focusing on the life of one Palestinian family moving through the years. The protagonist, Amal, embodies the bittersweet Palestinian experience, full of love and joy and rage and mourning, surviving unimaginable tragedy and trauma, ever unvanquished, never forsaking the hope for a return to the beloved homeland. Her life and the lives of her family and friends are, though fictional, very very real. I wish this book would get into many more readers' hands. It would open many eyes, I believe, and win many friends for Palestine.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

'No truth comparable to sorrow'

What a shame. The Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, a Manhattan landmark for the lesbian and gay community since before the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion, will close for good next month.

Ordinarily I don't subscribe to the sentimental preference for small bookstores over the big chains. All business owners exploit; that is how they make a profit. At the big stores, there are lots of workers under the same roof together who therefore have a shot at organizing, winning union recognition, and improving their wages and conditions, which precisely because of the unionization threat are generally better to begin with than at the little shops.

But Oscar Wilde is dear to me. On a visit to New York in Fall 1982, I took a long, soul-searching walk in the Village at the end of which I decided to move here from Detroit. I walked down Christopher Street to the piers and back up, and stopped in for a good long while at Oscar Wilde, and browsed and thought and bought, I believe, a book or two. Six years later, when I started dating Teresa, now my lover of over 20 years, I took her to Oscar Wilde as one of the first stops on her coming-out voyage. Over the years I've been back many times and it has always felt, cramped and dingy and understocked as it was, like home.

Perhaps Teresa and I can take a Christopher Street stroll and stop in at Oscar Wilde one last time before the end comes. I'll be sorry to see it go.

Apropos of nothing ...

... except to show that red literati can be as big old geeky language freaks as anyone, I have to weigh in today on the latest threat to my beloved, endangered apostrophe. As reported in Moby Lives and elsewhere, England's second biggest city has officially pronounced the punctuation mark denoting possession obsolete. Street signs in Birmingham will no longer employ apostrophes. According to the Associated Press report, this is the final step in an ongoing deterioration.
It seems that Birmingham officials have been taking a hammer to grammar for years, quietly dropping apostrophes from street signs since the 1950s. Through the decades, residents have frequently launched spirited campaigns to restore the missing punctuation to signs denoting such places as "St. Pauls Square" or "Acocks Green."
City Councilor Martin Mullaney's brilliant explanation for the definitive ouster of the apostrophe:
Apostrophes denote possessions that are no longer accurate, and are not needed. More importantly, they confuse people. If I want to go to a restaurant I don't want to have an A-level (high school diploma) in English to find it.
Mullaney touches on an important topic that I should comment on more one of these days, questions about whose language it is and who decides proper usage and how the living language changes and how the class divide affects language and which class controls language and which class has access to language and so on and so forth. However, it's hard for me to believe that these municipal politicians are acting on behalf of the working-class struggle to liberate English, and to me his comment smacks more than a little of condescension. (Also, I can't help but snarkily point out, he should have said "more important" and not "more importantly," but hey, using the adverb instead of the adjective is an extremely common error.)

Yet hark! The apostrophe's adherents are many, and they are not going down without a fight. I did a google search on "the endangered apostrophe" and got 5,100 results, including whole websites devoted to this very issue.

There is another less noted but just as pernicious threat to the apostrophe: its overuse. For all the times the apostrophe is omitted when it ought to denote possession, it is inserted where it has no business being, before the s making a word plural. As in "I bought three apple's" or "It's hard keeping all these ball's in the air" or ... well, you get the idea. Idea's. Oy vey.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Socially engaged fiction

Some novels that are extremely political and extremely fine: here is a mere brief list off the top of my head and in no particular order, consisting entirely of well known books written in English that I have read.
The plot, as they say, thickens. It seems that not only are reactionary or anti-struggle books praised by the U.S. literary establishment despite its oft-stated view that literature and politics are antithetical. Progressive, though not revolutionary, fiction that directly and explicitly takes on great social questions can be and often is well received. This is also, or even more, the case when it comes to translated fiction, especially from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia, about which I hope to comment more soon.

It's so obvious that the anti-political-literature case is not truly believed even by those who argue for it that I won't belabor the point further. The issue, then, becomes why they keep saying it. And what they really mean.

To be continued.