Monday, March 30, 2009

At March's end

Odds & ends at March's end ...
  • Marilynne Robinson is anti-science; I don't see any other way to interpret this. Doesn't surprise me. Of course I liked her long-ago first novel Housekeeping. But I felt my (thankfully brief) time reading Gilead a couple years ago was utterly wasted. The wildly overblown waves of glory accorded to this deadly dull little religious tract are nearly inexplicable except as some sort of weird mass hypnosis arising from the glazed eyes induced by turning the novel's (thankfully few) pages. Or else it's the book's inward-aimed non-struggle thrust that so appeals to bourgeois literary tastes. Anyway, check out Blographia Literaria's report on Robinson's recent lectures at Yale, notable for her repeated snide references to "parascience," which is apparently a coinage of her own.
  • The PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature is set for late April. Bizarrely, the theme this year is "Evolution/Revolution." The former, well, okay, we'll see what they have to say about that. But the latter? Oh, come on. Maybe I'm wrong but as far as I can see there is not a single revolutionary voice included in the program. This doesn't mean there won't be a number of interesting, worthwhile panels. But revolutionary? Of course not. PEN, as an organ of the liberal bourgeoisie, has frequently functioned as a virtual mouthpiece for the U.S. State Department; its ire has always been aimed first and foremost at the countries trying to build socialism. Thus counterrevolutionary would more accurately describe its stance. Nevertheless, as I said, parts of the program look good and there are certainly many fine writers from around the world taking part. Did someone say "the contradictions of capitalism"?
And then there's this:
  • Welcome to the first buds of spring! These are in my Queens neighborhood yesterday.
  • "In the lesbian fiction market ... there is quite a stunted growth in formats that break away from the community norm of detective or Mills and Boone type lesbian fiction. We're responding to calls for novels that are more quirky." The "we" here is Antitype Press in England, and it's great to hear that while they too, like most LGBT presses, will be doing genre, they're looking for what sounds like a different take on what has become, in my view, a dreary, tired lineup of the same old same old. They characterize their first novel as "dark religious fiction." I'm game.
Busy week ahead, and my wildly whirring little brain is a-flutter with sentences demanding to be written as I return to my newly rediscovered second novel, so posting may slow down a bit. Or not. We'll see.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A hallelujah moment

They are few and far between, these occasions of breaking through creative obstacles, and when they come they leave in their wake an amazing wash of feelings of relief, joy, renewal, hope, and, best of all, a flood of ideas and energy and an eagerness to get on with the work.

I'm so happy and, yes, I have to repeat because truthfully this is the dominant chord, relieved at what I accomplished this morning that I've got to report it. Even though this blog is primarily oriented outward, that is, toward the work of other writers and, beyond that, toward the world and the worldwide class struggle, on days like this my own writing life demands to have a say.

So here's the deal. Early last year I conceived a new idea for a second novel. I became excited about it, began doing research, jotted some notes, started daydreaming about the characters, quickly became committed to it, and applied to some arts colonies for a summer residency where I could get to work on it. To my amazement and gratitude, I was awarded a fellowship to the Saltonstall Foundation colony in Ithaca, NY. I spent a month there last summer. I worked on this new novel. Wrote about 65 pages. Not a single one of them came easily. Not a note of it felt natural. Not for an instant did I fall into the sort of fever dream/trance/all-encompassing creative obsession that I had experienced in the writing of my first novel. At the end, although I had in many ways loved my month in the country and found it wonderfully restful and rejuvenating, especially my early-morning hours out on my balcony overlooking pond, fields, hills, I felt fairly disheartened about this novel I'd begun. I had never tumbled into it the way I'd hoped to. I suspected it might be the wrong project. Most of all, I was convinced that what I'd written pretty well stunk. Sixty-five pages of dreck. I came back home and set it aside, intending to pick it up again after a month or so and try for a fresh assessment.

Instead I waited eight months. To be honest, I was frightened to pick those pages back up. To acknowledge, as I was sure I'd have to, that they were crap and therefore to have to decide whether the whole idea for this book was a wash which, too, I suspected I would. I did other work, finishing and revising some stories, although even that only sporadically, not at all with the sort of discipline and regularity that are necessary to accomplish anything decent, all of which in turn worried and disheartened me even more.

Throughout these months, I was constantly aware of that folder filled with 65 pages written last summer sitting on my desk waiting, daring me, in fact, to pick it back up. It took me until this morning to get up the nerve. Or to run out of excuses, perhaps. So today, after coffee and breakfast and some reading and some chores, I picked up those pages, I sat down, and I read them.

And now I am, as I reported at the top of this post, relieved, joyous, and raring to go. Because it's good! Maybe very good! Unexpectedly, unsuspectedly good! Those pages may have been difficult to write, not a one of them may have been composed easily, I may never have felt myself transported into that dream state of creativity I'd experienced when I wrote my first novel and oh so dearly desired to enter in the writing of this one--but guess what? Reading them now, I was engulfed in the world I'd imagined, impelled into the minds of the characters I'd created, I felt myself grabbed and pulled forward, page by, dare I say this, pretty darn well-written page. I'm aware that the writer herself is the worst possible judge of the worth of any piece of writing, so who knows, I may be just as wrong in now thinking it's good as I was last summer in thinking it was no good. For my purposes it doesn't matter, I think. What matters is that somehow I've found my way through to some kind of magic. I've recaptured what made me want to tell this story. I'm in its spell. And now that's what I will get back to. Telling this story. Which I now, again, hallelujah, feel compelled to tell.

First, this week, there's work; there's passing out leaflets to get the word out about Friday's "Bail Out the People" march on Wall Street and AIG; there's the demonstration itself. But after that, there's the writing that now, thank heavens, calls.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Triangle fire

Just a few steps away from my office, at the corner of Washington Place and Greene Street off Washington Square, sits what NYU now calls the Brown Building. On March 25, 1911, it was the site of one of the worst crimes against the working class in U.S. history: the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which ended with 146 dead. Almost all of them were women, some as young as their teens, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants who worked for outrageously low piecework rates in this sweatshop whose doors the owners kept locked so that no one could slip out even a moment before the official end of the work day. The Triangle's owners were already notorious for the terrible excesses of their greed, and the horrible working conditions to which they subjected their workers, and had been the targets of a strike not long before. They had also had other fires in their shops before. This day was the worst. The fire, which was directly caused by the bosses' flouting of any and all attention to safety, spread quickly. Those who didn't die inside from the smoke or flames found no way out except to jump from the ninth floor windows, and died on impact with the sidewalk.

The Triangle fire drew mass outrage. A funeral march of hundreds of thousands turned into a mass labor demonstration, which in turn led to great swift growth in the garment workers' union.

Today at the Triangle site (and I don't know why it wasn't two days ago on the actual anniversary) an annual memorial ceremony will take place. This is a frustrating event for labor activists. It is jointly organized by UNITE-HERE, the union that has its roots in both the International Ladies Garment Workers and the Amalgated locals, and the NY Fire Department. Its focus invariably is on fire regulations, not on worker rights. Not on struggle. It's a bloodless commemoration of a bloody day, a sort of ivory-tower history lesson that's divorced from all the current struggles facing the working class, even including today's immigrant workers and the attacks on them. Ah well. The U.S. labor movement is now at perhaps its lowest ebb ever. This can only mean one thing: that a return to struggle will come soon, because the only possible direction is up.

In the last few years two books related to the Triangle fire came out, both of which I read. One was a novel, Triangle, by Katherine Weber. I regret to say that it was in my opinion mediocre, and that's being kind. The other book, however, I highly recommend. It is Triangle: The Fire that Changed America by David von Drehle. Von Drehle's is a terrifically readable, highly informative, historically accurate and generally class-conscious look at that day, its context, its aftermath, and, most of all, its victims. At the end is a list of the names of and some factual data about every one of the 146 victims. I sat and read it and wept and wept. And dried my tears and turned back toward tomorrow's sturggles.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Kindle swindle

Today on the train in to work, I sat next to a woman who was, like me, reading a book. Only I was reading an honest-to-goodness book with pages made of paper, a hardcover on loan from the library, whereas she was reading on an electronic screen. A Kindle, to be precise. As we sat, both of us reading, I wondered how our experiences differed. Whether her reading felt like mine. It's a question that increasingly interests me, how it is to read a book on one of these electronic devices. More than that, though, I fumed.

Now don't worry. This won't be some Ludditic sputter against the new reading technologies. I did used to be very skeptical about them but I've grown more open to the idea, in fact more and more intrigued by its possibilities. I love books, but I don't love my aching back from always hauling them around, nor the dust they endlessly collect on my shelves, nor the losing battle to find enough space for them. For this and other reasons, I now can see myself using an electronic reading device at some point, even if not exclusively.

Not under capitalism, however, I fear. At present the cost of every one of these gadgets--Kindle, Sony Reader, iPhone and Blackberries for which I understand there are now applications for reading--is far beyond my means. Far beyond the means of most wage workers like me, especially in this current economic crisis when most of us, from what I can tell, are doing our best to trim spending. But even once the prices go down, as they probably will over the next few years, using them will still entail outrageous expense and render them unaffordable. This is because you have to not only buy the devise, but buy the books you're going to read on them. All anyone talks about is how great Amazon's $9-per-book-downloaded-onto-Kindle is. I say it's an absolute swindle. Both because of the increased profit margin (at least potentially; I don't know if this is the case during the current several years of start-up phase) now that there is no physical product being multiply manufactured--none of which increased profit, you can be assured, will go to the authors and much of which is derived from publishing-industry consolidation, meaning layoffs. And, most of all, because we're forced to buy the product (from only one source, but that's a slightly side point) rather than permitted to borrow it from the library.

I think I've rhapsodized before here about my love of libraries as well as my admittedly nutty habitual haunting of four to six different ones along my daily grid. I shouldn't need to sell anyone on the importance of public libraries, or of how criminal it is that their funding is continually cut, their hours are impossibly skimpy, their workers poorly paid and treated. With books so outrageously expensive, whether Amazon's Kindle price or the three times that you'll pay in a bookstore, the libraries are more crucial than ever. If anyone doubts that, join me in an excursion to my neighborhood Queens library (if you can manage to get there during the slim window of opportunity when it's open); you'll find it's absolutely jam-packed with people, and you'll wait in a long line for book check-out.

As for me, I rely on libraries for most of my fiction reading. I can't afford to buy many books, period. But in particular with regard to fiction I've found the hard way that I just can't trust reviews, or recommendations, or even my read of the first few pages. I just can't chance the expense on a book I might very well not end up finishing.

So here's what I want when it comes to an electronic reader. I want it to be affordable, by which I mean under $50. And I want to be able to borrow library books onto it for free. After the revolution, the devices themselves will be free, and they'll be better and easier to use, and we won't have to borrow the books from libraries but download them permanently. And the authors, like all artists, will make a decent living doing their art without having to work a day job and .... okay, now I'm lapsing into my own daydream of the creative life under socialism, which couldn't diverge more from today's reality. To which, lunch hour over, I now return.

Dr. John Hope Franklin

The great historian Dr. John Hope Franklin, preeminent chronicler of African America, has died. Here's an appreciation from Tayari Jones.

Dr. Franklin's works are too numerous to list, his contribution to both the truth and the struggle too massive to fully understand, I think, just yet. There are a couple good places to start, though, for anyone seeking to learn what he had to teach. His Mirror to America: The Autobiography of John Hope Franklin came out just two or three years ago. And there is his 1947 opus From Slavery to Freedom, which I admit I've never read but have long meant to.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Day of Land

This Saturday, March 28, in Brooklyn, the Palestinian music group Hanin and the Al-Awda Dabeh Troop will perform in honor of Yom al-Ard: The Day of Land.The annual Day of Land is dedicated to the struggle to regain the stolen land of Palestine. Specifically it memorializes the March 30, 1976, killing by Israeli troops of six Palestinians who were peacefully protesting continuing confiscation of Palestinian land.

The Brooklyn event is sponsored by Al-Awda Palestine Right to Return Coalition NY. It's Saturday at 4:00 in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, at the Widdi Catering Hall: 4602 Sixth Avenue (N or R train to 59th Street).

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Israel vs. Arab culture

As an organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights in Occupied Palestinian Territory, Al-Haq condemns the repressive actions taken today [Saturday 21 March 2009] by the Israeli authorities in banning peaceful cultural activities organized as part of the Palestinian Cultural Festival marking the declaration of Jerusalem as the "Capital of Arab Culture 2009."
Read the rest here.

Monday, March 23, 2009

A new book from Mumia Abu-Jamal

Political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal's new book Jailhouse Lawyers: Prisoners Defending Prisoners v. the U.S.A. has just been published and is available from City Lights. Here's how he characterizes it:
This is the story of law learned, not in the ivory towers of multi-billion-dollar-endowed universities, but in the bowels of the slave ship, in the hidden, dank dungeons of America.
Mumia, for anyone who doesn't know, is a lifelong political activist and journalist who was framed by the Philadelphia police for the 1981 killing of one of their own and who was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in 1982 in one of the most notoriously unjust court cases of the 20th century. Evidence of his innocence was not allowed. The jury was stacked. The judge used the "n" word. Ever since, living on Death Row for 26 years now, Mumia has fought to get his conviction and sentence overturned, backed up by an ever-growing international movement. At the same time he has continued to write sharp political commentary, in articles as well as several previous books.

Angela Davis, who was herself the victim of a police frame-up back in the 1970s, wrote the introduction to the new book and you can read it here. There will be a New York City celebration of the book's release, characterized as "More Than a Book Party," on Saturday, April 25, 4:00, at Riverside Church. It looks like a splendid program.

The blood of the innocents

I don't know who the sculptor is, but I do know that this sculpture of a shoe, erected in the city of Tikrit, is a monument to what most Iraqis consider the greatest moment in their nation's recent history: the day last December when journalist Muntadar al-Zaidi threw his shoes at George W. Bush at a Baghdad news conference. Was a monument, that is: the U.S.-puppet Iraqi government forcibly took it down.

Earlier this month al-Zaidi was sentenced to three years in prison for his "crime." His defense laywers have said that this is how he described his act to them: "At that moment, I saw nothing but Bush, and I felt the blood of the innocents flowing under his feet while he was smiling that smile." He is a national hero in Iraq, and an international hero as well, and no one will forget this brave brother and what he is enduring as punishment for telling the truth.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Portia de Rossi on target

Sexist familiarity

There's a great letter in today's New York Times Book Review from New Yorker writer Joan Acocella objecting to NYTBR reviewers referring to female authors by their first names and noting that the reviewers never assume this familiar attitude when referring to male authors, who always get last-name treatment.
I am writing, as I have before, to ask why the Book Review allows reviewers to call female artists by their first names.
Read the rest here.

Sheepish note: It seems that I myself have been guilty of this infraction in the headings of my posts about O'Connor. I think I used her first name because it makes the subject of the posting so instantly obvious and recognizable. Nonetheless. Mea culpa.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Bring the troops home now!

Six years. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead--and that's on top of the more than 1 million who'd already been killed by the first President Bush's Iraq war and his successor Clinton's murderous sanctions. Several thousand U.S. troops dead. Billions of dollars bled into this endless war on behalf of Big Oil. And despite worldwide anger, and majority opposition to the war here in the U.S., and all sorts of promises during last year's presidential campaign, there is still no actual end in sight.

If you're frustrated and perplexed about how to end the war and move the struggle forward, read this excellent analysis by Fred Goldstein.

If you want more information, check out this range of books and movies about Iraq and the Middle East from

If you're going to Saturday's march on the Pentagon, look for the signs and banners of the Troops Out Now Coalition and march with them to demand that all the troops be brought home now; an end to the war and occupation, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine; and money for human needs, not war.

Upward ever

If you're like me you get caught up in literary crushes or obsessions. I'm in the grip of one at the moment. The object of my literary stalking is the British Marxist novelist Edward Upward, who I only discovered when he died last month at age 105 and with whom I'm now utterly taken. I recently read his 1938 novel Journey to the Border, which was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf's Hogarth Press. I was not disappointed. It's an odd book stylistically, written in a sort of high modernist stream of consciousness. Brief and engaging once you give yourself over to it, situated throughout inside the protagonist's head replete with confused, contradictory thoughts that ultimately tumble toward clarity, it ends with him heading toward a newsstand to buy the communist paper preparatory to joining the party.

Now I'm about one-third of the way through Upward's 1977 trilogy of autobiographical fiction The Spiral Ascent. I have never had a reading experience like this. There may be other novels that depict the experience of becoming a communist, of the actual day to day reality of party work inside an imperialist country, but I've never read one. Even more interesting to me, the focus here is not only the life of the communist activist but specifically the life of the communist who is also a writer, and the ongoing challenge with which a communist writer must constantly struggle, that is, the competing tugs of the urge toward art and the obligations of activism. How to reconcile the two? Do they actually contradict each other, or can each in fact be complementary aspects of a life dedicated to the struggle for a better world? Can the creative work make a contribution to the class struggle just as much as the workplace organizing, the leaflet distributions, the newspaper sales, the protest demonstrations? The story of the main character, Alan Sebrill, is different from mine in many ways. But like me he works full time, he feels the call to action with his comrades, and he also feels compelled to create and so is always at pains to examine his actions and motivations as he tries to strike a meaningful balance.

In a Guardian article about Edward Upward from five years before he died, there's a reference to "a controversial 1937 essay called 'Sketch for a Marxist Interpretation of Literature'." Apparently in this essay Upward directly addresses these same issues with which he would later grapple fictively in The Spiral Ascent. Now I'm dying to read the essay and trying to track it down. No luck so far but I've got a query in with the university librarians and I'm hoping they will dig it up for me.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

How sad Cheever, how happy Carpenter

I've read some of the reviews of the new biography of John Cheever with mild interest. His fiction has never appealed to me, for perhaps obvious reasons, but the whole business of his bitter life of hiding, humiliation and self-hatred as a gay man, which has been well known since soon after he died, is getting another look all around, and seems if anything even sadder upon revisiting. Earlier this week came this excerpt, via the New York Times' Paper Cuts book blog, from composer Ned Rorem's The Nantucket Diary, which illuminates Cheever's desperation.
John arrives early. No sooner is he in the door than he drops his pants, pleads, whispers how lonely he is ... John like a bull in a china closet chases me about like a Mack Sennett comedy until I lock myself in the bathroom. 'Please come out, I'll be good.' So I come out, and we sit nervously on the sofa, John still with his trousers around his ankles, when J.H. comes in. ... J.H. offers to take him to the baths; no, he just wants to sit on the sofa for a while with J.H.'s arms around him.
I've been looking around for some gay commentary on the bio or on Cheever but so far haven't come up with much. But then, how happy is this. I stumbled upon this Gay Book Blog and its notice of a recent biography of Edward Carpenter by the redoubtable Sheila Rowbotham, whose Women, Resistance and Revolution and Hidden from History were among the first books I read during my lesbian-activist-coming-to-socialist-consciousness years in the early 1970s.

Springtime approaches ...

... yet the capitalist crisis keeps snowballing, with no bottom in sight. It's already as bad as the Great Depression, despite the deceptive methods of tracking the current figures, according to one economist. By his count, in terms that are comparable to those used to assess joblessness in the 1930s, the unemployment currently stands at 19.1 percent. I don't know about you, but I worry about my job all the time, though thankfully so far there's no sign of any trend toward university layoffs. Some close friends and family, however, who have jobs in retail, computing, and the public schools, for heaven's sakes--don't get me started on the outrage of teacher layoffs while our tax dollars continue pumping up the Pentagon and the banks--are skating on thin ice, with job cuts all around them and heading their way.

There's only one thing to do: bop 'em! As in BOPM--the Bail Out the People Movement. This coalition of trade unionists, anti-foreclosure activists and others has called a major action for April 3-4, to coincide with the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, as the BOPM call states, "gave his life fighting for social and economic justice."
"Why? Because we must demand that the needs of the people come before the greed of the super-rich. Millions are jobless and homeless, and millions more will be living on the street if the government continues to waste trillions of dollars on saving wealthy bankers instead of saving people."
Wall Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange at 1:00 on Friday, April 3: I'll see you there. If you're not in NYC, check out the BOPM website to find out about actions planned in your area. To get you in the mood here's this, lyrics by the never to be forgotten political artist Yip Harburg:

Monday, March 16, 2009

I'm too old for this

I read a lot of books, but I start probably twice as many as I end up finishing. In the last three days I've started and stopped three books.

I just can't see slogging forward, wasting my precious reading time, if I'm not really into the book, if it doesn't have a grip on me. It wasn't always this way. For one thing, I so do not subscribe to the editors' and agents' mantra that it's all about the first page. Many books take a while to build up steam, and a serious reader has to let the process unfold. I can be patient, and in the hands of the right author such patience will be rewarded. So I used to rarely close a book without finishing; when I did it usually wasn't until after I'd read a good 150 pages or so, until, in other words, I'd given it every chance to win me over. I was always full of hope. I always thought the book might catch fire on the next page.

But some while ago I read a great formula for when to give up on a book you're reading, and it has freed me. I no longer feel required to keep reading if I'm not loving it and I no longer feel guilty about the decision. There are too many great books waiting to be read and I'm getting too old to waste my time on the not-great ones.

So here's the rule. It's all about how old you are, which seems right to me since you young'uns have more reading years ahead of you.

If you are under 50 years old, you should read the first 100 pages plus your age. For example, if you're 38 you should read 138 pages before giving up. Invest the time. You've got plenty available. It may appear odd that with this approach, younger folks get off with reading fewer pages and you have to read further in the older you get until you hit 50. Think it over, though, and it makes some sense. It has to do, I believe, with growing into your powers as a reader. With maturity.

The rule flips once you are over 50. Read 100 pages minus your age. Time's a-flying. Move on. You're wise enough--now wise up and stop wasting your time. In my case, this means I can give up on a book at page 46. Sweet!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Flannery fandom backlash

I've wondered how long it would take for my little communist lit blog to draw attacks. Perhaps it's happened before without my knowing it. In any case, my post about Flannery O'Connor's racism, which dissents from the generally held view of her, has drawn a dis from a blogger who calls my piece "a joke O'Connor would have enjoyed." Hmm. As not even her acolytes deny, O'Connor enjoyed racist "jokes" most of all, so this seems to me to rather widely miss the mark. No matter. The point is clear, and it's the same as the standard version.

(Yes, I revised this post a bit from the first edition. One thing I resolved when I began this blog about six months ago was that I wouldn't get involved in blog wars. So I thought better about naming my critic and characterizing or linking to his bit of snark directed toward me. The substantive issue, the angle of attack of literary analysis, is what's interesting, so I won't stray from it.)

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Lending out my lovelies

Appearances aside, it does not please me when I tilt toward the negative. So today--sunny, warming up, tiny buds visible on the tips of tree branches, and to top off the lovely morning my weekly weigh-in showed that I've lost two more pounds which means I've now lost 12 with only (!) 35 to go--let me trot back to the bright side. Because for all the books that disappoint me or push my buttons, there are still so many that fill me with joy and wonder.

My books. Ah, my lovelies.

I have too many, of course. I cull the shelves too rarely and when I do I rarely come up with any I can bear to part with. Truth: I derive a strange, silly pleasure from just staring at them. Sometimes I stand in front of one or another bookcase and run my eyes along the spines. Sometimes I fantasize about taking a visitor on a tour of my books, pointing out particular titles for her to ooh and aah over. This morning while I did yoga, during which there are several sitting and standing poses that have me facing some bookcases, I felt such a calm descend and I know it wasn't just the endorphins being released by the exercises and stretches. It was my books, the sight of which flooded me, I think, with a sense of well-being, of openness to the world and the future and all the gifts that await me in the reading yet to come.

Another little task this morning brought all this home. A close friend was telling me yesterday that she hasn't had a good novel to read in some time. So I pulled some to lend her. I'm frequently too stingy, have too hard a time letting my dearies out of my sight, but I'm trying to be more generous, and so I came up with this list, which I'm emailing her so she can choose which she wants for a start. My friend is a reader so this list is only a slim slice of what's on my shelves, a lot of which I know she's already read. Still, it holds some partial clues to my idea of good literature. Here's the list. Perhaps I'll have occasion at some point to rhapsodize--I mean blog--about each of them, but for now I'll just be waiting for my friend to read them, and to hear which ones she likes or doesn't, and why.

Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks
Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
Death of a River Guide by Richard Flanagan
Sor Juana's Second Dream by Alicia Gaspar de Alba
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
Hester Among the Ruins by Binnie Kirshenbaum
The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar
Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones
Love by Toni Morrison (one that's been largely and unfairly overlooked)
Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien
My Dream of You by Nuala O'Faolain
The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr
Hottentot Venus by Barbara Chase-Riboud
The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Life Isn't All Ha Ha Hee Hee by Meera Syal

Friday, March 13, 2009

Lush lies

I'm not a fan of detective novels, mysteries, police procedurals. In my experience they're usually just not very interesting. There's a sameness. Every time someone urges one on me telling me that no kidding, this one's different, I find it, yep, the same as all the others. They're unimaginative. The writing is blah. All that aside, for me the main impediment to enjoying this genre is that for the most part the heroes are police.

In the real world, police are the furthest thing from heroes there is. Police are racist killers. Police are assassination squads occupying the communities where poor and oppressed people live. Police are the security force in the employ of the ruling class. At base, police are the capitalist state in its rawest form: armed might facilitating the project of capitalism, which is exploitation.

One of the unforeseen and, well, embarrassing, refrains of this blog seems to be how time after time I get snookered, hoodwinked, into reading a book that I shoulda oughta known wasn't for me. It's usually because of some combination of reviews, of which I'm generally wary since they're pretty much always imbued with bourgeois consciousness yet which still sometimes pique my interest, and friends' recommendations, which I really shouldn'ta oughtn'ta trust any more than the establishment literary critics but I foolishly do.

And so I spent the last two days reading Lush Life by Richard Price. Waste of time. A fast read, the guy can write, sure sure. At the end, though, what have you got? You've got a book in which the heroes are cops; in which every white middle-class character ends up alive, with a future, with hope; and every Black and Latino character (other than cops) ends up dead or futureless or hopeless; a book that pretends to be realistic and yet in which not a single cop ever lays a violent hand on a Black or Latino youth; a book in which every Black and Latino youth is a liar and a criminal of one sort or another. A book whose author clearly thinks he understands the oppressed, how they think, how they talk, how they live--whose narrative armors itself with a sort of faux compassion for people who nevertheless are, when you come right down to it, portrayed as so other, so exotically brutally icky, that the reader is set up from start to finish to identify only with the cops, with the murder victim's family and friends, and never, no how, no way, with the oppressed. What a mendacious, backward, upside-down view of reality and of who the real criminals in this society are. What a waste of two precious days of reading time.

I like to watch ...

... not to go all Being There on you or anything. But here's some stuff I've watched or plan to:
  • Last night I stayed up past my bedtime and, along with who knows how many millions, I watched The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on Comedy Central for the hugely advertised mini-showdown between Stewart and Jim Cramer, the mad-dog marketeer of CNBC. Some minutes in, it became clear that Stewart had dropped his humor shtick and was going for a serious shaming of Cramer and his ilk. It was mildly interesting, but mostly not, especially as it went on and on and Cramer kept agreeing, owning up to his and his cohort's failings. I kept wishing the funny would come back. Why? Because the funny frequently hits the mark. This, however, was as off-target as all the rest of the so-called analysis and especially the outrage that's filled the airwaves since the economic crisis hit. Stewart focused on the liars, the cheats, the thieves in banking, housing, mortgage lending, the stock market and so on. Fine. There are liars, cheats and thieves galore thereabouts. In fact, from my point of view they're all liars, cheats and thieves by definition. But lying, cheating and stealing did not create this crisis. This is a cyclical crisis of capitalism. A classic crisis of overproduction. The owners, the bosses, the traders could be clean as fresh-fallen snow and such crises would continue to recur, each one worse than the last. The capitalist system itself inexorably creates them. All the indignation in the world, fake or honest, as is probably the case with Jon Stewart, doesn't change that. To prevent more of the same, more layoffs and evictions and ever-increasing mass misery, the whole system has got to go.
  • This coming Tuesday evening, March 17, I'll sit my tuchas down on a folding chair at the McNally Jackson bookstore in Soho and watch and listen as the wondrous gifted Justin Torres reads from his story "Lessons," in the current issue of Granta. Justin is such a bruisingly good writer it's breathtaking, and his gifts are being recognized quickly and justly. He's also a darling dearheart who I adore. I met Justin two summers ago when we were both fellows at the first annual Lambda Literary Foundation's summer LGBT writers' retreat in Los Angeles. (If you click on this link, you'll see a picture that includes a few of us there with the magnificent Dorothy Allison. That's me hovering above Dorothy, and Justin leaning on the table on the right. Also in the photo: Doug Jones and Ruby Kane.) He actually workshopped this story there, not that there was much more than a comma here and there that needed changing; I remember we were all stunned by his talent, all of us aware that here was the real thing, that the world would soon know of him. And here he is in Granta, having already been in Tin House and several other noteworthy magazines. I can't wait to see him. Meanwhile, Maud Newton, lit blogger extraordinaire and no slouch as a writer herself, also has a piece in the Granta "fathers" issue, online only I think. I haven't read it yet but it's in my queue.
  • My tushie will get another concentrated rest (as if it ever does much of anything else) in a couple weeks, for I got myself a ticket to see the City Center Encores production of Finian's Rainbow. I'm so excited, for lots of reasons that I'll go into when I report on the show. There's politics. It's written by the great Yip Harburg, and it has a strong anti-racist, pro-worker them. There's my love of the musical theater, and of Finian's music, which includes the hauntingly lovely "How Are Things in Glocca Mora" and lots of other great songs. And there's, I admit, a great wash of sentimentality, nostalgia, having to do with my childhood, my mother, the 50s, you name it. UPDATE: Unfortunately, I had to sell my ticket. Scheduling conflicts. Sad, because this is a show that is not often mounted.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bolaño's bamboozle & the real Chilean heroes

I know I'm a little late to this, but I have to say it surprises me not one bit. (The news, not my lateness. Well, my lateness too.) Roberto Bolaño, the Chilean writer whose translated work is lately all the rage among U.S. literary tastemakers, was not in Chile at the time of the September 11, 1973, coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende. Nor was he one of the roughly ten thousand people arrested, most of whom were soon killed by Pinochet's fascist troops. It's all a lie. Which kinda undercuts the romantic hype casting Bolaño as some sort of actual leftist activist and his writing as somehow politically radical. He wasn't and it isn't. I read The Savage Detectives a couple years ago and was terribly disappointed. My own fault--why did I even for a minute fall for the hype? As if the literary establishment in this country, whose lionization of Bolaño continues to accelerate, would ever champion a truly revolutionary writer, even a dead one.

Anyone interested in the reality of the Chilean struggle, or in getting to know actual Chilean activist artists, need look no further than the case of Victor Toro. Victor was a founder of the MIR, the main revolutionary party in Chile at the time of the Allende presidency. He and Nieves Ayress were arrested during the coup, imprisoned, and tortured mercilessly. They survived, and fled the country, and have lived in New York for over 20 years, where they've been leading organizers in the Latino community. In the summer of 2007, during an ICE sweep on an Amtrak train looking for undocumented workers--yes, for those who are still unaware, right now, every day in this country, the Gestapo-like anti-immigrant police force actually stops trains and buses and sweeps up anyone who looks Latino--Victor was seized for not having papers. Since then the government has been trying to deport him to Chile. He and his supporters are fighting to demand instead that he be granted political asylum.

UPDATE: In a shock to no one, the National Book Critics Circle has named Bolaño's 2666 book of the year. Meanwhile Victor Toro fights on.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Marlon James: 'The Bigots on My Bookshelf'

Marlon James, whose novel The Book of Night Women I'm currently reading, also reacted to last week's reviews of a new biography of Flannery O'Connor. His take is different than mine, and very thoughtful, and addressing as it does the issue of "who feels it knows it," in this case a Black writer on the topic of a racist white writer, merits much consideration.

Rachel Corrie Remembrance Day

This coming Monday, March 16, will be the sixth anniversary of the murder of Rachel Corrie, the young woman from the United States who was in occupied Palestine on a solidarity trip and was killed by an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer that was destroying Palestinian homes in Gaza. Rachel Corrie was protesting the destruction. She laid down in front of a bulldozer in a classic act of nonviolent civil disobedience. The bulldozer kept rolling. She was crushed to death.

There's nothing worse or more horrifying about Rachel Corrie's killing at the hands of the IDF than that of so many thousands of Palestinians, most of whose names we in this country never learn. But the fact that she traveled across the world and put her body on the line in an act of solidarity makes her worthy of honoring. And so Monday has been designated Rachel Corrie Remembrance Day.

The play My Name Is Rachel Corrie, based on her diaries and emails, has been performed to great acclaim over the world. In this country, any time anyone tries to mount it they face venomous, slanderous attacks from pro-Zionist forces. It takes tough stuff to push through with the production. I thought I'd heard recently that some brave producers were going to bring the play back to the New York stage this spring, but so far I can't find any trace of it. In lieu of that, here is Rachel herself, in a video interview not long before her death in Palestine.

Friday, March 6, 2009

In Defense of People's China

Sometimes I think it should be renamed the Anti-China Propaganda Purveyor. That's how much you can rely on the New York Times Book Review to promote literature that portrays the Chinese Revolution in general, and the Cultural Revolution in particular, as world historic horrors. This coming Sunday, March 8, they do it again, with a front-page celebration of Yiyun Li's new novel The Vagrants, replete with a bright red background behind a nasty graphic full of Maos and death's head skulls.

So much, once again, for any pretense at hewing to the line that true art can't be political. This novel, like scads before it that were crafted to turn the reader against the People's Republic and were all equally hailed, is deeply political. But somehow when the politics are counterrevolutionary the art-can't-be-political line is suspended.

What these books won't tell you are a few minor facts. Like that the Chinese Revolution of 1949 freed nearly one billion workers and peasants from deadly poverty, starvation, illiteracy. Or that it ended the patriarchal, misogynist tradition of foot-binding for women, enabling millions of women to walk normally--that's right, literally to walk--for the first time. Or that the Cultural Revolution brought literacy to millions of peasants, workers and soldiers, opened up the arts to proletarian expression and higher education to those who had never before had access to it.

Or that, since 1949 (and before, when Mao and the Red Army were marching toward victory), U.S. imperialism has had People's China in its sights as a primary enemy both because of the dangerous example it provided the world's people of the possibility of revolutionary social change and, especially in the recent period, because it is an economic rival. And that the U.S. arts establishment has happily served its role as propagators of this enmity.

In the case of China, as with Cuba, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Vietnam, or the USSR before its fall, the most reliable and effective spokesartists for U.S. imperialism are those who immigrated to this country. What nobody here gets a chance to see are the books, movies and various other artistic expressions by the people who remain in the country in question, the vast majority by the way, the patriots who defend their countries and stand against imperialism's efforts to destroy the work they are trying to do. The art exists, but we never get to see it--especially not the books, because after all what U.S. capitalist publisher is going to translate and put out a novel that shows the beauty, the glory, the transformation of poor people's lives that result from the revolution?

This is above all the case with China. There, despite all the setbacks of the last 25 years, despite the leadership's reprehensible turning away from many of the key principles of the 1949 Revolution and of the Cultural Revolution, despite the terrible inroads of imperialist enterprise, U.S.-owned above all, and the resulting deterioration in conditions for Chinese workers--despite all this, there remains a flourishing mass communist movement that is engaging in a struggle to reverse the backward trends, a class struggle to restore and renew the gains of the Revolution. This movement includes millions of young Chinese women and men. There can be no doubt that they are writing novels. But we don't get to see them. Not in this country, where the impression is deliberately manufactured that the people of China hate the Revolution. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. What they hate are the inroads of capitalism. You'd never know it, however, from reading the NYTBR. (UPDATE: Now that I've gone through the whole Book Review I find that the entire thing this week has a China-bashing theme. It's not two pages, it's five, including the centerfold features. Blech.)

Here are some of the wonderful, classic books in English about the great Chinese Revolution, all of which I've read and highly recommend to anyone who wants a genuine insight into what it meant for a billion people, what a beacon of hope it was and what vast change it wrought. Unfortunately, they're mostly out of print (and I'm not letting my copies out of my sight!), but used copies may be available for those who care to dig.
And here are links to some articles by Sam Marcy and other Workers World writers from the era of the Cultural Revolution:

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Onto the to-read list

The Book of Night Women, the new novel by Marlon James, has been receiving raves all around. Sometimes I hear about a wonderful young writer and I make a note of my urgent need to read her/his work--Marlon James' previous book, John Crow's Devil, has been on my to-read list for some time--yet somehow amid all the detritus clogging my ancient brain the writer and the work fall off my radar screen. I'm sorry that seems to have happened with Mr. James. It won't happen twice. I must read this novel, and soon.

If I'm not mistaken, it takes place around the time of the uprisings of the Maroons, the enslaved Africans of Jamaica. There is some vital history there, little known in this country, so I'm excited to see what role, if any, it has in this by all accounts stunning novel.

UPDATE: I'm in it now, and it's un-put-downable. Some evidence in my blog posts aside, I don't like being a contrarian and it's a grand relief when a book lives up to the hype. Except that now it's making me nuts that I have to work for a wage for the next eight hours instead of stay inside this book.

Why wasn't I in Bristol last week?

If I had been, I'd have joined the rush on the huge book warehouse where thousands of books were free for the picking after being abandoned by Amazon's British used-book supplier. Check it out, including some amazing photos.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The Flannery flim flam

What is it about Flannery O'Connor? Am I the only one who's mystified by the never-ending deification of this unrepentantly racist writer?

The front-page feature in yesterday's New York Times Book Review was Joy Williams' review of Brad Gooch's new O'Connor biography. Review? More like hymn of praise for the book's subject. In the course of two full pages, Williams recites all sorts of fun facts about O'Connor. For example that she wrote lots of letters. She was a devout Catholic. She "collected all manner of fowl." She "liked to drink Coca-Cola mixed with coffee." Oh, and by the by: "She was a connoisseur of racial jokes." And: "The civil rights movement interested her not at all." And in response to "a request to stage one of her stories, she wrote, 'The only thing I would positively object to would be somebody turning one of my colored idiots into a hero.'"

Not two sentences later, Williams concludes the hosannas with, "She is reported to have had beautiful blue eyes."

Lovely. Just lovely.

A few years ago a work acquaintance, a white woman from the South, gave me a book of Flannery O'Connor's short stories as a gift. I confess I'd never read her till then. I knew she was widely considered one of the greatest U.S. writers of the 20th century. So I eagerly dove in. And soon was drowning in sympathetic portrayals of racist characters and varied but by my read mostly insensitive, one-dimensional portrayals of African Americans. And lots lots lots lots of use of the N word. I kept telling myself to go on, kept thinking, wait a minute, I think she's going to expose the racism here, she'll be making an anti-racist point, she's building up to it. But it never came, and I couldn't force myself to go on after I'd read three or four stories.

I believe the conventional view is that she was in these stories simply telling the truth, showing the reality of social relations in the mid-century South. The corollary is that fiction has no other duty, that the writer need not tip sympathy in one direction or the other. The second aspect of the O'Connor hagiography, after kudos for her characterizations, is celebration of her mastery of language. She was, we are given to believe, one of the great English stylists. She was, and I don't think this exaggerates the regard in which she is generally held, a genius.

Well, there's truth telling and there's truth telling. The question is: whose truth is being told, and what is it being told in service of? The status quo or change? The answer in the case of Flannery O'Connor's writings, it seems to me, is the former.

I'm of course not arguing against showing the brutal ugly reality of racism, in the South, the North, and anywhere else. But is the reader edified in any way about it, its causes and its horrific effects? With whom is the reader moved to identify? O'Connor's fullest characters, at least in the stories I could stomach until I closed the book, are white, and racist, and multi-dimensional, and sympathetic.

All of which brings us to the old questions of (1) form and content, (2) the writer and the writing, (3) social responsibility and literary neutrality.

1. I guess the establishment view in the case of Flannery O'Connor is that the form is so magnificent that the content matters not. Who cares if she writes raving racist fiction? She writes it so damned well! As if this needs saying, I disagree. Content matters.

2. I've written several times about a December email I received from an Acclaimed Young Writer, in which he lectured me about the errors of a political approach to reading and writing. One of his most impassioned points was that the writer's politics are irrelevant; only the writing counts. He used the well-worn example of Ezra Pound. He was a fascist, Mr. AWP noted, but he still wrote great poetry. This matter of separating the writing from the writer has been much debated in many quarters and, surprise surprise, most of the literati come down on the same side as Mr. AWP. My view is a bit more nuanced. Is it possible for a reactionary write well? Hell yes, of course. Do I want to read work by a reactionary? Hell no, not if I know that the writer's politics are odious. Does the writer's politics affect the writer's writing? Oh yes oh yes oh yes--even if the reader doesn't realize it, even if the writer doesn't. Am I therefore reading fascist work if I'm reading work written by a fascist? Yes, I think so. And so no, if I know a writer to be a fascist, a racist, an anti-Semite, a counter-revolutionary, a reactionary of one stripe or another, I do not care to read his or her work. No matter how technically marvelous it may be.

Let me refine my point slightly. Or maybe this is redundant, I don't know. But the issue for me is not: is it art? That's not a particularly interesting question, at least not to me, and I have no problem assenting to the art-ness of all kinds of creative product. The sort of questions that interest me are more along these lines: whose art is it? What world view does it express? To which side of the class divide does it adhere? Is it an artifact of hope, or an instrument of oppression, or what? In one of my earliest posts soon after I started this blog, I said that I have pretty minimal requirements in my reading life. Despite all my bloviating, that's true. It's not necessary for a novel to be a workers' manifesto in fictional form for me to like it. But I cannot like, I cannot even read, a volume that is, whether subtly or overtly, against the workers, against the class struggle, against the oppressed. Call it art if you like, but it's art in the service of the wrong ideology and you know which dustbin it'll end up in.

3. As I've argued in many earlier posts, there is no such thing as literary neutrality on the great social questions. There is faux neutrality, which amounts to alignment with the status quo. Most current literature falls in this category, in my opinion. There is, on happy occasion, work that takes the side of the workers and oppressed, or that at least orients in a vaguely progressive direction. I'm reading such a book now, a novel by the British Marxist Edward Upward (marvelous moniker, isn't it?), who I'd never heard of until he died earlier this month. Then there is work like Flannery O'Connor's, work that, with skill and art, subverts fiction's promise, fiction's potential, fiction's hope, and delivers instead a portfolio for the power of words as bulwark against progress.

Which makes her, I guess, the thinking person's Margaret Mitchell. Whose own paean to the old South's slave system, Gone with the Wind, specifically the film version, is lauded in a new book that's also reviewed, also witlessly, in yesterday's NYTBR.

UPDATE: Please check a later, related post, a week or so after this one.
AND ANOTHER, AS OF DECEMBER 2009: Now that Richard at Existence Machine has posted a longish entry about this topic a fair chunk of which responds to what I wrote here, so that a fair number of you who just read through my post may have come from his (and if you didn't you might want to head over there to see what he has to say), I'll add two quick notes. One is that I did indeed read the repulsively titled O'Connor story that Richard considers at some length in his essay; if I remember right I had a range of reactions to it and did move on to keep reading more stories after it. It was several stories later that I gave up on O'Connor. The second is that I'm more interested in an issue Richard touches on briefly before moving on to the meat of his thoughts on O'Connor--that is, whether literature can actually move people to political action. I'll see if I can't come up with a thought or two on this some time soon.