Friday, July 31, 2009

Last gasp of vacation links

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 30, 2009

I could get used to this, but I can't

I've spent this morning, as I've spent just about every morning in July, drinking coffee and reading. The only variation has been whether it's in the bedroom, which is cozy and delightful but can get too hot, or up front in the cool, breezy sun room surrounded by a sea of green in every direction and by the singing and flitting about of bluejays, wrens, robins, sparrows, swallows as well as the occasional cardinal and oriole. (Pure luck, the house is on a dead end, there are trees on all sides, and our apartment's on the top floor, perfect vantage point for birdwatching.) As I finished my coffee and set down my book and gazed out at the green a little while ago, I sighed and thought, ah, I could get used to this ... and tried to do some arithmetic to figure out how many years I've got till retirement. Too many. As if I'll ever be able to afford to retire even when I attain the magic age. Regardless, one must live in the now, they tell me, and this now of lovely easy breezy mornings is not something I've got the option of getting used to. No matter. It's been grand.

My cold's easing up too, and so I'll happily venture forth this afternoon on a long-planned outing to the Queens Museum of Art. This is one of my favorite public institutions in the city. It's much much more attuned to contemporary work by artists of diverse nationality than the stodgier, doddery old Manhattan museums. Much more reflective, then, of the wonders of Queens. And it has the Panorama of the City of New York. This is where we -- I'm going with a couple friends, including one lifelong New Yorker, who've never seen it -- are probably going to spend most of our time. The Panorama is a huge scale model of the entire city. When I say entire city, I mean it literally; the Panorama includes every single building in the city, at least up to its last major update in the 90s. It also currently features some kind of marking to show neighborhoods where the mortgage foreclosure crisis has hit hardest, so that should interest and no doubt rile us up.

Before I sign off, a word about the road forward. I expect to return for one or two more posts in the next few days, one about a small press that interests me and possibly another with some links of interest. After that, it's back to work Monday morning--but not back to my old ways. At least, I dearly hope not. Last week I wrote that over the remainder of my vacation I hoped to accomplish some things "in the writing category." What I meant by that rickety locution was that even if I didn't do any writing I wanted to attend to my writerly side, organize, regroup, get my act together. This felt urgent, because I wrote very little over the last year. Because I have a scary birthday less than two weeks away. Because I have tons of unfinished work and one unpublished novel. I have, in other words, much to do, not all that much time left to do it unlike these brilliant youngblood 20- and 30-somethings, and if I want to move forward as a writer I can't let any more days dither away.

I did indeed accomplish something in the writing category. I have a plan, a commitment, energy and ideas. These are the result of a lot of reflection, a lot of looking at my work, a sincere effort to realistically assess all the various relevant realities, and they're also the result of a wonderful two-and-a-half-hour phone conversation with my best writing friend GK. So. I won't bore you with the specifics of the schedule I've crafted, but I will say that the overall approach relies on a reshuffling, or rather a re-recognition, of priorities. I have to maintain at least a minimal level of political activism; that's not ever up for negotiation. I have to work for a wage; sadly, that isn't optional either. Taking those two givens into account, something else had to give in order to free up, or rediscover, my writing self. That something else is reading and blogging.

Which means:
  1. No more coffee and books on weekend, holiday or vacation mornings. Instead I'll be heading right to the keyboard for coffee and writing. I'll still read on the subway to and from work, but on days off I'll limit my reading time to afternoons and evenings. It'll cut into my total intake, but so be it. Do I want to only consume? No, I want to produce.
  2. Less frequent and less extensive blogging. When I started this blog last fall, I intended it to be an occasional, quick, fun diversion for my lunch hour a couple of times a week. Obviously, it turned out to be much more. Fun, yes. Too much fun. Although strictly speaking I have mostly not spent what ought to have been my writing time on the blog, the truth is it has come to occupy too much space in my consciousness and has, I must reluctantly acknowledge, diverted me from writing. I've got to wrench my attention away from the blog and put it back where it belongs, on the blank pages that have been patiently awaiting my return.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

At the Met, part three: most of the world gets a special exhibit

About two-thirds of my two days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a couple of weeks ago were spent at the exhibit "African and Oceanic Art from the Barbier-Mueller Museum, Geneva: A Legacy of Collecting," and the Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas collection in the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing. For anyone with the slightest consciousness about the crimes of imperialism, looking at the objects in these collections can only be a vexing, contradictory experience.

On the one hand, the art is magnificent. And you appreciate, so much, the chance to see it, to experience it, to think about it, to learn about it at least a little. Walking through the rooms you are overwhelmed by the sweep of cultural riches on display; it's impossible to take it in in any real depth over the course of a few hours; you just sort of move about in a state of awe. After all, the areas from which work is on display here constitute more than half the world. The material in these exhibits comes from hundreds and hundreds of nations, and span hundreds, in some cases, thousands of years. The wealth of human creativity, passion, ideas, humor, mythology, statecraft, etc., is mind-boggling. I felt myself dizzied by the creativity surrounding me in those halls.

On the other hand. Oh god, there's so much to the other hand. First of all, given that what's on offer here is art from more than half of the world -- why in the hell is it relegated to a special exhibition, to a single area, why is it separated off as if it is Other, a sideshow, a special feature subordinate to the main attraction? Which of course is European art. Then there's the inescapable fact that everything on display is stolen. The overall blurb for the special exhibit says that the objects on loan here from the Barbier-Muellers, no doubt a simply delightful family of rapacious plunderers,
represent the culmination of more than eight decades of wide-ranging collecting of works from both [Africa and Oceania] regions.
That's one way of putting it, a phrasing of which I'm sure old King Leopold, author of the colonial mass murder and wholesale robbery of the riches of the Congo, would have approved. Me, I can think of alternate ways to describe those eight decades, which would feature words like larceny, theft, cultural genocide, and so on.

The scale of the crimes behind these exhibits is massive. It's not just that "art lovers" were stripping these civilizations of their cultural riches -- and I mean riches, baby, check out the room full of gold from Colombia and Peru -- while the larger colonial enterprise was extracting the main imperial booty of natural resources and labor. It's that they literally took apart these societies. For example, several times I found myself admiring a huge wooden or metal object, in one case from Papua New Guinea, in another from the Ivory Coast, only to find out when I read the curator's notes that the object had been part of a house. That's right, here a doorpost, there a thatched roof, simply removed and transported to Europe and now on display in New York. What happened to that family's house once the doorpost was taken? If anyone imagines they were compensated or offered a new house, well, I mean, really, come now.

And why were they removed and transported and mounted for display? This is 2009 and the Met's curators were at least a little careful with their language, so there's no mention of words like "primitive cultures" in the printed material. But the displays are imbued with that unspoken notion. The notion that here, you civilized sorts, here for your viewing pleasure, is some primitive stuff. Then come to find out that, in fact, this Michael Rockefeller wing did used to be called the "arts of primitive cultures" wing; not only that, but the stuff in the permanent collection all used to be housed in a separate Michael Rockefeller Museum of Primitive Art.

And who was Michael Rockefeller? Not any old John D. descendant. He was a son of New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller, the racist butcher who later, in 1971, ordered the troops to open fire and killed 43 people in the rebellion at Attica Prison. Ten years earlier, in 1961, Michael had disappeared, never to be found. He was in what is now Indonesia when his dugout canoe sank because it was so overloaded with art he'd "bought" from the indigenous Asmat people. His guides managed to swim for help; at some point he apparently decided he could make the swim too, and by the time they returned his body was nowhere to be found. That's the official version, anyway. As we walked through room after room of the most astonishingly brilliant, vibrant, original art and were stunned into awestruck contemplation of the hundreds and hundreds of cultures stripped bare by the Michael Rockefellers of the world, cultures that for the most part don't even exist anymore, Teresa and I started spinning our own preferred version of what had happened to him, some story featuring the vengeance of the oppressed. The image shown here is two objects among the thousands Rockefeller brought to New York, in this case from New Guinea.

As is by now obvious, I can't even begin to try to report on the art we viewed. It was extremely diverse, coming as it did from so many different places, so many different cultures. But one thing struck me, very strongly, something that had never occurred to me before but that I think I just might have gotten right. And that is that the flowering of modern art that began in the second half of the 19th century in Europe and continued through the first half of the 20th century, the great outpouring of new, shocking, trailblazing, original art -- impressionism, fauvism, cubism, dada, surrealism and the rest -- all that we think of as the great outburst of modernism in visual art is actually copied from the arts of the indigenous cultures that European colonialism had begun looting and shipping home at that same time.

It struck me first right after we entered the exhibit hall. There was a viscerally exciting, boldly colored, kind of kooky looking image of a face with the eyes and nose and mouth all sort of askew. It was from a nation in the South Pacific. I looked at it and thought, my god, that looks like the great painting the Demoiselles of Avignon by Picasso. Further on, looking at a mask from what is now Malaysia, an elongated face with slit-like eyes, I thought, and gosh, look at that, it's like a Modigliani sculpture. After a couple more times of this sort of thing I suddenly slapped my face and realized, shit, no, that doesn't look like a Picasso, this doesn't look like Modigliani--Picasso and Modigliani's work looks like this! That is, their work copies the work of the artists of these nations! As I thought about the timing, it seemed to me to make sense. By the time the young artists who would become the greats of European modernism were coming of age, the museums of Europe were filled with material that had been looted and shipped from, yes, Oceania and Africa and the Americas, and of course these young artists saw it. And they ripped it off. And claimed to be the originators of brilliant new ways of looking at the world.

Well, this is probably no great original insight. No doubt progressive arts scholars have long since proved such a thesis. But it was very much brought home for me in those two days filled with awe and sadness, grand beauty and the ugly crimes of history.

The final five

Today is the first of the final five days of my vacation. Naturally, nothing is going as planned for the festivities' end. I've managed to come down with a miserable head cold, and the weather has finally turned July-horrid, hot and muggy, and ah well fill in various other kvetches here as you will.

One I'll repeat from my last entry: Rogue's Gallery is not living up to the hype. The last two chapters I read, which focused on John D. Rockefeller II and Robert Moses, make both out to be for the most part admirable fellows. One of the reviews I'd read said the book exposes how Junior turned to art philanthropy in a panicky effort to rehabilitate his reputation after the Ludlow Massacre. In fact, the sequence of events is not presented that way at all. The Rockefellers, pere et fils, are, in a quick sentence or two, absolved of any responsibility for the mass murder of the Colorado miners and their families; Junior is in fact portrayed as deeply pained by it and won over to sympathy for labor unions and a desire to help and support that cause (!). And then his art dealings over the subsequent decades are presented in an altogether favorable light. And Moses? He stood for the masses, as far as Gross's book shows. Oh lordy.

Plus the writing is kinda boring. Nevertheless, I'm not giving up yet. I have instead devised a strategy for moving forward with reading this book. I read a chapter or two, then I take a break and read a novel or, since it looks like I'm not going to make it to the beach after all this week, a light beach read. I've read one more novel since the Lessing, and I'm now on to a celebrity bio -- that's right, my one summer trash book, allowable since I'm under the weather, but it would be too embarrassing to report the title, so I'm keeping it my secret.

Battlestar Galactica fans know the other meaning of The Final Five. Having made our way through every episode up to the final season, Teresa and I have been waiting for the last four DVDs to become available, chomping at the bit to find out who the fifth is. The wait is over. The discs should arrive by the end of the week. She returns from Texas Saturday night. We just might spend Sunday, the final hours of our reprieve from work and obligation, on the couch with Adama, Starbuck, Roslin and crew, on the final leg of a ride we have immensely enjoyed.

Monday, July 27, 2009


Yesterday I took a break from Rogues' Gallery, Michael Gross's mildly muckraking book about the Metropolitan Museum*, and read Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Doris Lessing. Inhaled it, I should say, all 300-some pages in a single sitting. This is an extraordinary book. Packed with provocative ideas and at the same time compulsively un-put-downable, which is a rare combination. It's hard to know how to boil it down in a way that makes any sense ... Is it science fiction? Is it a denunciation of the deficiencies of the mental-health-care system? An exploration of madness and modern society, the madness of modern society? All of the above? As always, I refer you to the experts for scholarly analysis. From me you get awe. The unscholarly report that this novel blew me away.

Lessing terms it "inner-space fiction." It's set mostly in the mind of a middle-aged college professor who has landed in a psychiatric hospital in the midst of a full-blown breakdown featuring total amnesia about himself and his life. We go with him on a mind-blowing journey -- from a shipwreck, to a seemingly interminable "round and around and around and around" helpless swirl on the high seas aboard a flimsy raft, to the ruins of an ancient coastal city populated by warring cannibalistic dog-people and monkeys, to rides on the back of a mysterious huge bird, to inside a brilliant shining shimmering disk of universal consciousness, to the vastness of space and a solar perspective, to the Hell of the title (which Hell is of course contemporary Britain, contemporary being 1969, for this is one of Lessing's earliest novels), to World War II Yugoslavia in the woods with the Red partisans, and back, finally, to the mental hospital, a course of shock treatments and a return to "normalcy." Which arrives as the tragic quashing of all hope and potential.

Potential, especially squandered potential, the individual's and the human race's, is the ultimate theme of this deeply affecting novel. We humans are so stunted, so cut off from all that we could be, we have so misused and distorted the possibilities inherent in existence on the Earth, that we are effectively a lesser species than the one we ought to have evolved to be. The species that we still could, still might become, for yes a tiny glimmer of hope peeks through here and there. On page 262, the main character concludes from his time in the woods with the Yugoslav partisans that
any human being anywhere will blossom into a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to use them.
Lessing is always an interesting writer. I adored The Golden Notebook when I read it at age 18, finding it a stirring feminist story, though I'd probably react quite differently to it now, especially its anti-Soviet aspects. I loved The Fifth Child and its many-years-later sequel Ben in the World, both of which are disturbing tales about an, mmm, odd boy. Her politics I find unfortunate, hewing to what is for her generation the typical former-communist-now-liberal-anti-communist line, but at least she, a white born and raised in South Africa, did begin her fiction career writing against apartheid, so props to her for that. In any case, as I've professed on several occasions, I don't require political perfection in fiction as long as it doesn't offend me.

Lessing has made several forays into science fiction, of which Briefing was I guess a precursor. Now I'm interested in reading more of those books, starting, perhaps, with The Four Gated City. Especially since the loathsome Harold Bloom had this to say in reference especially to Lessing's sci-fi books when she won the Nobel Prize in 2007: "This is pure political correctness." Ah Harold, Harold, your vile surly there-is-no-literature-except-that-written-by-dead-white-men snarls are always a sure signpost toward what I should be reading.

Briefing for a Descent into Hell reminded me a little of a novel I read years ago and often recommend to friends: The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant. It is the story of a bad man, a violent, self-involved, sexist man, who is in a terrible car accident and wakes up in a strange, different world, a gentle, caring, communal society whose mores are informed in large part by its inhabitants' collective dreams. Alice Walker has reportedly called this "one of my favorite books in all the world." Bryant's book ends on a more optimistic note than Lessing's, with the protagonist retaining the lessons of his inner-space adventure. I found Lessing's, though, albeit in the final analysis more pessimistic, more interesting as literature.

*Not that you asked, but no I'm not loving Rogues' Gallery. The writing is less than scintillating. It's of the "he bought this, then he bought that, then he donated this, then he refused to donate that, then he stole this, then he was sued, then he gave it back" variety. Here's a sample sentence, about J.P. Morgan from page 95:
But in 1911, he did send several paintings, including a Rubens, from his London home to the museum and gave it the loan of a van der Weyden Annunciation, a Cellini bronze, and a Vivarini panel and also gave as gifts six tapestries depicting the life of the Lord; portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and of a British admiral and his wife; an Assyrian sword, two knives, and a lance; a prehistoric flint knife and a funeral dagger; more paintings by Carolus-Duran, Memling, Terborch, David, and Holbein, among others; another Rubens, this time a panel; a coffer, a cross, and an ivory plaque; antiquities from the Roman emperor Hadrian's villa; a Limoges clasp and various pieces of gold.
See why I had to take a break and read a novel? I'll keep slogging through because I'm interested in the information in Gross's book, but a slog it is, I'm sorry to report.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

I'm ba-ack ...

... with not the promised final Met Museum post, but a books list. Yesterday I reorganized and, sigh, added to my to-read piles. The sigh is weighted with:
  • regret at all the books I'm starting to recognize I won't get to over the course of my vacation, which is now down to its final week;
  • abashedness (a word?) at my recalcitrance, my recidivism I should maybe call it, on the desperately seeking more books syndrome, which I'd hoped was ebbing but to whose permanence I might as well concede;
  • shame that I haven't written at all during my vacation and fear that in the week left I still won't;
  • defensiveness that I haven't written and won't, because hey I'm a worker and I was tired and why the hell shouldn't I just take a rest during my paid days off;
  • aggravation that I've got lots of household and personal chores to take care of and that's most likely how I'm going to spend the bulk of this last quarter of my vacation;
  • awareness, consolidating in fits and starts, that these four weeks of reading, hanging, chores, not-writing, are taking on the shape of the dreaded turning point, and will probably inevitably culminate in an unavoidable stock-taking and decision-making about how to proceed with the work of my life;
  • embarrassment that much of this is likely occasioned by something as banal, trite and immature as horror at my upcoming birthday and the impossibly advanced age I will on that day attain;
  • and, aw, probably just non-profound mushy-headedness, because I woke up at 5:30 a.m. yesterday and 4:30 a.m. today, both times unable to get back to sleep, and so I'm in a bit of a daze. Sigh.
So, as I was saying, I added to my lunatic to-read piles, and I thought I'd report on the additions. Who knows when I'll get to them. It's impossible to plan this out, as evidenced by my current detour into reading about Metropolitan Museum after two days there sparked my curiosity. It goes like this. I go like this, a victim of my own enthusiasms, a disorderly dilettante of a reader. And so. Most of these are not new books, have been on my to-read list for a long time, but until yesterday's library-and-used-bookstore outing I hadn't had them here with me. Now I do. Five are fiction: What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day by Pearl Cleage, A Long and Happy Life by Reynolds Price, Briefing for a Descent into Hell by Doris Lessing, Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawai; and one new book, In the United States of Africa by Abdourahman Wabero. Two are non-fiction: Planet of Slums, a couple of years old from the indispensable Mike Davis, and Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origins of Culture by Marxist anthropologist Chris Knight.


At the Met, part two: read all about it

I now have in my hands and have begun reading Rogues' Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum by Michael Gross. It's too soon to tell what I'll think of it, and my expectations aren't super high since I know it's more of a petit-bourgeois liberal I'm-shocked-do-you-hear-me-simply-shocked-that-rich-people-behave-so-badly muckrake than any sort of systematic critique of the capitalist art world, but I'm hoping it'll be at least informative. Dishy's fine too. Already, barely 30 pages in, I've learned some interesting stuff. For instance, the final annual salary of recently retired Met director Philippe de Montebello: $5 million. This is a public institution, its operations, including this snooty jackass's cash haul and free Fifth Avenue apartment for 30 years, paid for by our New York City tax dollars. Publicly funded though it may be, required by law and reams of contracts with the city to provide free public access along with a range of public services, as Gross sketches in the opening pages, the Met flouts law, contracts, and any charade of serving the public with its intimidating entry gauntlet misleading museum goers into believing they must pay a $20 entry fee and in various other ways restricting the legally mandated access. The city, of course, looks the other way, especially nowadays helmed as it is by a billionaire mayor whose buddies run the show.

Despite what I expect are its class-analysis limitations, this book does expose some truths about the misdeeds of the New York City ruling class and for that, as I've mentioned before, some of those elements and their minions did what they could to stop it getting read and campaigned against it. Some of this may have initially worked, but ultimately it seems to have backfired. Amazon's rankings now show Rogues' Gallery in the top 10 of its urban social science category. At the Strand bookstore yesterday, piles of the book were on prominent display on the best-seller table on the art books floor.

From that same table I picked up a copy of Francis Bacon: 1909-1992 by Luigi Ficacci. The price: only $7.50. Hurray! I'm glad I was wrong in thinking I'd never be able to buy a book about this artist whose work I'd so appreciated at the Met exhibit. No, it's simply that the Met store only carried more expensive books. Happily, this one, bargain priced as it is, is handsome, with a nice offering of color images of Bacon's paintings. Unhappily, however, it's pretty much unreadable, the prose turbid, impenetrable. Here's a sample, the opening sentences of a random paragraph plucked from the middle of the book:
Extrapolation of the image from its natural appearance does not permit its transformation into an abstract entity. In the case of erotic inspiration, or an episode of desire, the flagrancy of the act is an absolutely decisive psychological motive. The imaginative process must necessarily exalt the erotic obsession at its origin, even if this is in the most autonomous and condensed iconic synthesis. On the other hand, it is clear that, precisely when the senses are most excited, as in the case of sex, the response of the empirical appearance would reveal its falsehood and incapacity to satisfy the desire to see. This entails a few artifices that would make it possible to grasp an intangible entity -- sensation -- as if it were a truly material fragment.
Oy. I guess I'll just look at the pictures.

(This reminds me of how I was first turned off to academia, and especially to academic approaches to art, back when I first started college in 1972. I'd started school expecting to major in art history. It took one semester of an art history course, one semester of trying to wade through this sort of gobbledygook and realizing that I'd be expected to produce it if I became an art historian, to dissuade me from that course.)

One more note on reading about the Met. This week's New Yorker has two items about the museum. The first is a gag-worthy brief in Talk of the Town about the current exhibit of loot from U.S.-occupied Afghanistan and a pre-opening tour for a group of moneybags that was followed by dinner at La Grenouille, one of the city's fanciest and priciest restaurants. As is usual for such pieces, this one is characterized by a certain arched-eyebrow-covering-awe-at-the-company-we're-keeping style. The second is an amazingly vapid puff piece on the Met's new director, Thomas Campbell, who last fall succeeded de Montebello. The writer, Rebecca Mead, manages to simultaneously mention and gloss over the whole topic of the museum's larceny. As for Gross's book, the museum's overseers' efforts to quash it before publication, the robber class's howls of outrage once it came out, she takes a simpler route: she never mentions it. Which, along with the article's timing, suggests to me that the piece is in fact a response to prodding from the Met's PR office, that it is, in other words, part of the campaign against Gross's book.

Oh, don't get me started about the New Yorker. I've ranted about the New York Times Book Review several times here but I've slighted the New Yorker, which is more than deserving of a rant or two; perhaps I'll produce one some time soon. This week's issue is a prime example of much about it that makes me gnash my teeth, including the pieces cited above but others as well, above all the latest from one Malcolm Gladwell. Good golly, will we never be delivered from this guy's drivel? This week's wisdom: how the personal psychology of the big investment bankers, specifically their overconfidence which is a natural but in this case maladaptive human trait, is what caused the current economic crisis. Hello!?! Has he never heard of capitalism? Overproduction? Speculation? No, apparently not, but hey he did take a Psych 101 class, and he does read business school case studies, those fonts of wisdom. While we're at it, by the way, does he know women exist? Again, apparently not.

OK. Enough. I have yet to blog about the exhibit at which we spent two-thirds of our two days at the Met. This is because I've been pondering it, and how to boil down what I saw and what I've been thinking into a brief blog entry. I'd also like to find some relevant books to recommend and haven't yet had a chance. It will come soon, though. Also coming, within the week, a look at an independent press that specializes in, believe it or not, left political fiction.

Friday, July 24, 2009

MJ, after a month

It's now a month since the big loss we're all still struggling to get used to. I realized this morning that every morning since Michael Jackson died I've woken up with one of his songs in my head. I always wake up singing -- (in fact, there's always a tune running through my head, mostly from Broadway or Motown, and I sing, or more generally, hum, literally all the time when I'm awake, unconsciously for the most part and at a low enough volume that people mostly don't notice, although a couple of years ago a visiting cousin did notice my constant humming and labeled it an "autistic tic"!) -- but I've never before noticed myself waking up every day for a month running to a revolving prefrontal playlist of one particular artist's songs. I'm pretty sure I've dreamed about MJ several times too. Some of it is no doubt the result of all the continuing media coverage of his life and death that has seeped into my subconscious. However, I also think that some of this personal jukebox survey is an aspect of my coming to terms with his death. Of mourning, in other words.

Sophisticates, I know, scoff at the notion of grieving for someone you did not personally know. And yes, I'm not in pain over Michael Jackson's death the way I was in pain when my mother died. Also I'd certainly agree with anyone who asserts that the mass focus on and fascination with celebrity, especially in this country, is unquestionably a manifestation of much that's awful about capitalist culture as well as a manipulated response to market forces. However. There is also such a thing as great art. Art that moves the masses of workers and oppressed people. Art that arises from and speaks to our class. Art that enriches our lives. And so although it's not the same as what we feel for our family and friends, a great artist can inspire in us a feeling that can justifiably be called love. And when that beloved artist dies it can affect us, just as the artist's work in life affected us.

This morning I had to run some errands in Manhattan and afterward I stopped for breakfast at an outdoor cafe. I was drinking coffee while waiting for my food and reading Joan Acocella's piece in the current New Yorker about Michael Jackson the dancer. At the exact few seconds as I read the sentence that begins, "Watch him--as you can, for example, in 'The Way You Make Me Feel,' (1987)," I became aware of this very song, "The Way You Make Me Feel," blaring loud and joyous from a car stopped at a red light a few feet away from me. I was stunned and weirded out, but not in a bad way, and I stopped reading and started kind of bopping in my seat to the music, and then I looked a few tables over and saw one of the wait staff dancing to Michael's song as it poured into the restaurant from the street, dancing while she laid out silverware on a table. I got up and went over to her and showed her the sentence in the New Yorker and said, wow, isn't this something, I just read this sentence and then that exact song starts playing. And she said, oh my god, it's Michael, he's here, he's talking to us.

I smiled and shrugged and thought, gee, I wish I weren't such a nincompoop at math, wish I understood probability theory, wish I had the capacity to do some quick calculations and come up with a figure to show that no, actually, it was random chance. How likely was it that I'd be reading that sentence in that article at the same time a car would drive by blaring that song? Likely enough, I bet, given how much everyone's listening to Michael Jackson's music lately.

Michael is not here. Michael is not talking to us, not singing, not dancing, not shining his brilliant creative light on any of us anymore. That's the problem.


I'll get back to book talk soon, I promise. Tonight, though, more music. Unless we get rained out, I'm meeting some friends at Queensbridge Park for a free concert by Metropolitan Opera singers. None of us has ever been to an opera or knows the least thing about this art form, but we're hoping it'll be fun.

E. Lynn Harris

It's true, it seems. E. Lynn Harris, well loved author of many novels as well as a critically praised memoir, died this morning. He was only 54.

There's no clear report yet about what happened. He was on a West Coast book tour for his newest novel, Basketball Jones, which is about an NBA player who is gay. Another contribution, now, sadly, the last, to Harris's unique oeuvre.

This was a writer whose work made a difference, in my opinion. This is bad, bad news.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

At the Met, part one: Francis Bacon

I spent the better part of two days last week at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. About one-third of that time was devoted to the Francis Bacon exhibit. I liked it a great deal. I have no idea if that places me at odds with any Marxist art critics but I'd hope not. Although Bacon did come from a privileged background in the British gentry, shabby genteel division, it seems to me from what I saw at the Met that over the course of his artistic career he shed whatever bourgeois sensibilities he'd been bred to and tapped into a vein of rage, pain and compassion so that his paintings, if not explicitly political, did evince a degree of consciousness about class, oppression, repression, violence, more and more, in fact, as he aged and his work matured.

It was obvious to me as I took in his work that Bacon's experiences as a gay man coming of age in the 1930s, and then his loves and losses in the decades that followed, directly informed what he expressed on the canvas. And oh what he expressed. What extremes leap out from those paintings. There are many portraits, mostly of his lovers and friends, many of their visages grotesque, distorted, refracted through an angry, satiric or burlesque lens. There is a moving series of images of men with blurred faces in shadowy settings, emblematic, I think, of 1950s gay life. There are his superbly startling takes on the pope, which I just loved to pieces. The one on the right, like several others, is Bacon's study of Velazquez's 1653 painting Portrait of Pope Innocent X.

According to the curator's notes, Bacon was fascinated to the point of near obsession with the great Sergei Eisenstein 1925 Russian revolutionary movie Battleship Potemkin, especially the wrenching Odessa Steps sequence with the baby in its carriage plummeting away from the horrified nursemaid and then the closeup of her screaming face with smashed eyeglasses (as seen in the still from the film at left). A number of the paintings in this exhibit are Bacon's interpretation of this sequence, and many more echo it in various ways down the years, with her glasses appearing again and again in all sorts of images.

This was not a happy, optimistic artist. There is not much hope on exhibit here, and so I can't stretch my appreciation and call him a revolutionary. He was not. It's clear to me, though, unless in my ignorance I completely misunderstood what I saw, that Francis Bacon felt a deep alienation from the society in which he lived, felt compelled to depict its horrors honestly. Margaret Thatcher called him "that man who paints those dreadful pictures." You've got to love him for that. But not just that. His work speaks to me. In all its wrenching awfulness, it evokes something that feels true. I'm very glad to have had a chance to take it in, if only for part of an afternoon.

I had no chance, of course, to enhance the memory of what I'd seen by buying any images of his work or reading any more about him, because of course the Met gift shop's posters and books were all priced way out of reach. But hey, Teresa and I did buy two postcards with images of a couple of our favorite of the paintings, and we might even frame them and hang them up at home.

UPDATE: I couldn't leave it at that, priced out of reading more about this amazing artist, and now I've found this for only 10 bucks. Francis Bacon: 1909-1992 by Luigi Ficacci. If I succeed at selling some used books I'll try to pick this one up.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Piles: to discard, to read

Back again with a books note. Contrary to my earlier comments about July's weather so far, today turned out to be a clunker. Rainy, windy, crazy cool in the 60s. A hunker down inside kind of day, but I wasn't settled, centered, enough to hunker down the way I ought and write. Instead, I tackled a project I've been eyeing for some time. I went through our bookcases and -- gasp -- culled. Created four tall piles of volumes I'm ready to give up in the interest of taming our long out of control library. Some I'll cart to our local Salvation Army thrift shop, which on the one hand pains me because of that institution's reactionary politics but on the other hand pleases me because I know lots of folks head there for bargains and so my books might land in loving hands. Most I'm going to try to sell to the Strand. Teresa thinks I'm nuts to believe I will be physically able to load them into our shopping cart and then shlep the heavy load into Manhattan -- a long walk to our train station, up and down subway stairs on both ends, then another walk to the store -- but I'm sick of waiting for the borrowed car that never materializes so I'm going to give it a shot. Hey, I need the exercise. And gee, I might make all of 10 or 15 bucks for my labors.

It feels somehow virtuous to clear out some shelf space. (I even dusted, a little, but that's another story, my, er, deficiencies in the housekeeping department. And sneezed a lot. And stopped dusting.) I've always been resistant to getting rid of any books. Today, though, I was able to acknowledge the many to which I feel no attachment and from which I'll be able to blithely part.

It may have to do with what a good reading month I'm having. My chronic panic about not having enough books on hand has slipped away as I read and read and with each book completed reach for the next from an ample and amply diverse spread that I'd carefully prepared before the last day of work.

I've read nine books during my time off. I'm now on the tenth. I also started two others that I closed without finishing after giving them more than the usual chance, well over 100 pages.

Thus far the standout, no question, is Like Trees, Walking by Ravi Howard. This is a powerful, finely written novel about a 1981 lynching in Mobile, Alabama. The story is made even more powerful by Howard's mastery of a subtle, understated style. I really admire writers who can convey so much with such an economy of words. He makes it look easy. It's not. And he's so goddamned young! In his early 20s, I believe, when the novel was first published two years ago. I'll be eagerly awaiting his next book.

Staycation stories

Early this morning I sent my Teresa off to Texas for a family visit, and thus ended a swell first half of vacation. Because money's tight and because we were both in a lazy-ass mode, these were a low-key two weeks. Lots of reading, lots of lovely languid lopes around our Queens neighborhood, lots of cooking and iced-tea brewing, fresh summer fruit and leafy salads, a few outings to other boroughs to hang with friends or inhale some culture, a couple of restaurant meals including one delightful hours-long lunch/drinks/dessert/deep-talk loll in the outdoor cafe overlooking Bryant Park. The weather, weird as it's been, cooperated. It's as if July never came to New York this year. July=heat and humidity, muggy misery from which there is no escape unless we lock ourselves in the bedroom, our apartment's only spot with air conditioning, which we avoid if we can both because it jacks up the Con Ed bill and because, well, who wants to be locked in the bedroom? But the heat and humidity forgot to arrive this year. After an atrociously cold and soggy three months of spring, with rainy days taking up about three-quarters of April, May and June, July has been masquerading as May. Day after day of the mildest, sunniest, breeziest, just splendid weather. Not only have we not once had to retreat to the bedroom and turn on the air conditioner -- we have only even turned on a fan once in the entire month of July. Weather forecasts are for higher humidity in the coming days, but highs still only in the high 70s to low 80s. WTF? Friend, I am not complaining.

I am in fact looking to get off my butt and accomplish one or two things in the solitary days ahead. Things in the writing category. (A purposely clunky phrasing that I'll parse, perhaps, in coming posts.)

I do also plan to write, as promised last week, about my days at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Soon.

After all, though, I am still on vacation. So I can't be held to any more exacting standard than I think I will I will when I get to it I'll get to it if I do. So sue me.

Till next time, then, I'll leave you with a few links, stuff I came across this morning in my first look around the Web in a while.

There's the disgusting story of the Cambridge, Mass., police arresting Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in a classic racist outrage.

There's Amazon's removal of George Orwell's books from all the Kindles whose users had bought and paid for them. Here's one of the more interesting comments on this latest dustup. (Thanks to Tayari Jones for the link.) For me, this story drips with irony. Orwell of course was the great anti-communist. The brilliant popularizer of the lie that communism is anti-democratic, that free speech and civil liberties are innate to societies based on the market economy and anathema to the overthrow of class division. Uh huh. Hey Georgie boy, too bad you're not around to see the profit quest drive Amazon to toss your work onto the kindling.

Speaking of Tayari Jones, I've been following her blog postings about her work on finishing up her third novel and have found them most interesting and thought-provoking. She's now at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where she's grappling with the "high-class problem" of
"being so far along on the manuscript that the work isn't dragging me out of bed in the morning and keeping me locked in my studio."

Another writerly blog post that's got me thinking is this from Ellen Meeropol, about the fiction writer's responsibility, if any, to the "real people, or their family, behind the 'public figures' she appropriates for her stories." The question hits home hard for her because her husband's parents were Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, and they along with their two sons have been fictionalized in various ways many times. It's one that concerns me too, as I move forward with the work on my second novel. This story I'm trying to write is based on -- or was suggested by -- or is a meditation triggered by -- or is a reimagining of -- or a fictive reconsideration of the last 40 years of U.S. history beginning with -- or who the hell knows what relation it will end up having to but is one way or another closely related to a very famous crime. A crime that still resonates with many people, that is still remembered by many people, but, more important, a crime the victim of which has never in my opinion received her due consideration as a full, complex human being. More to the point, at least the point that Ellen makes in her blog post, many of the victim's loved ones are still alive, as are the perpetrator's. I think about all of them all the time as I'm writing, about how to tell the story I want to tell without causing them more pain than they've already endured. (Which, ha!, assumes the book will ever be published and read, a ridiculously cheeky assumption given my book-publication history to date.) I'm sure I'll write about this again in the coming months and years. It may be that other writers, maybe most writers, don't worry about any of this, don't let it affect their work, and from a purely artistic angle I suppose that's the right approach. But I can't manage it. It matters to me that I not compound anyone's suffering.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

To the Met, and back

Yesterday I spent a few hours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with my lover Teresa and we're going back tomorrow because there's much more left in the exhibitions that interest us. Some time in the next week I'll try to post some thoughts here about the art we've seen, about the Met itself, and related matters. For now I'll report that spending time there made me urgently want to read a couple of recent books, so I'll be looking to check them out of the library soon.

One is Rogues' Gallery: the Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metrpolitan Museum by Michael Gross. I hadn't paid a lot of attention to this book except to be mildly interested in the uproar it's caused among a certain milieu, and charges that there was a campaign to kill its sales. For example, the New York Times Book Review ignored it, apparently refusing to review it out of sensitivity to the sensibilities of that rag's bourgeois masters whose misdeeds it exposes. It was only after the author started his own camaign to expose the conspiracy to kill his book's sales that the NYTBR finally reviewed it on June 28. Now my interest is fully piqued.

The other book I'm now curious about is Loot: the Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World by Sharon Waxman. The title tells it all, and it's obvious why time at the Met would motivate me toward this one. The book focuses on four major museums: the massive Met, the gorgeous Getty Center in Los Angeles, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Princeton University Art Museum.

I will say this for the Met. Along with our interest in some of the current special exhibits, the other reason we're there is default because this is the only major museum in NYC that we can afford. All the others are outrageously expensive, with entry fees in the $16-$26 range. The Met has a similar ticket structure, but the prices are merely "suggested," and they don't bat an eye when you hand them a dollar or two. They'd better not. With its vast trove of stolen treasures and its foundation in the Rockefeller fortune, it would be piling crime upon crime (as in fact the Modern and others do) for the Met to make itself inaccessible to the working class.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Notes from the vacation front, film edition

This is just a quick check-in from vacationland, where I've settled in quite nicely, thank you. I'm now reading my seventh book. Or maybe eighth. I'm starting to lose count. Still too fully in lazy mode to write anything substantive about any of them. Still, alas, not writing myself and still listing faux reasons why that's okay.

Teresa and I did watch a couple of old movies that have held up well. One was 12 Angry Men, Sidney Lumet's intense, searing drama about a jury deliberating the fate of a young man, probably Puerto Rican (his nationality is never made clear but it is clear, based on much of the dialogue among the jurors, that he is a person of color), who is accused of murdering his father. The stellar cast includes Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Jack Klugman, Martin Balsam, Jack Warden. (Yes, apparently in 1957 juries were still all white men.) It's a powerful film, well worth watching again and especially worth getting if you've never seen it.

We also saw The Wages of Fear, a 1953 French film starring Yves Montand. This one didn't pack quite the punch it had the first time we saw it many years ago, which makes sense since the drama is all about the incredible tension inherent in whether the four main characters will survive, and once you've seen it you know the answer. Still, I'm glad we saw it again. There's much to cringe at in the overlong opening section, drenched in colonialist racism and sexism as these scenes of a bunch of European men stranded in a small town in Honduras are, so it's understandable if you can't get any farther into the film; but if you do manage to, you're in for quite a ride.

Speaking of movies, I'll take this opportunity for a quick little comment about the offense du jour from Sacha Baron Cohen. Bruno is not, I repeat not, a good-natured spoof on homophobia. I'll grant him that's a clever way to market it, especially since it is in fact the opposite, but I can't let him get away with claiming to be on our side. The character always has been, and the movie clearly is to the Nth degree, a celebration, not a parody, of anti-gay stereotypes. An elevation, in fact, of the sorriest, nastiest, meanest old grab-bag of homophobic tricks to the level of high, that is highly commercial, comedy. And by elevating broad, ugly stereotypes, by making of them an entire movie, scene after scene of the prancing, mincing, primping, fashion-obsessed and utterly brainless uber-fairy main character, Cohen has created, it seems to me, the anti-gay equivalent of minstrelsy. Not the sort of accomplishment a true artist would be proud of. But art isn't what this movie is about. It's about cheap laughs, and profits, and it's at my people's expense.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Ready to venture out

Having read one more novel, my staycation proceeds apace. I'm actually starting to calm down a bit, shaking off my crazy mania to read more more more books as if it's the end of the world and there's finally time for nothing else but reading like Burgess Meredith in that greatest episode of "The Twilight Zone." Yes, I feel myself getting ready to actually leave the house, get out and about in the best city in which to be stuck for vacation, the city where there's lots of free and cheap fun to be had, and Teresa and I will start having it soon. Concerts in Central Park! Coney Island for ocean beach boardwalk bad food roller coasters fireworks! Walking here there everywhere, including the new High Line to see if it's all it's cracked up to be. I'm hoping we make it to the scary climate change exhibit and the intriguing extreme mammals exhibit, both at the Museum of Natural History, which you always have to gear yourself up to go to because first you have to pass that disgustingly outrageously offensive racist colonialist statue out front, Theodore Roosevelt on a horse rearing up above two flanking figures, a Native American and an African, so you're all swearing and sweating and surly when you enter the museum. There's also the Met, which I'd love to get to for several current exhibitions. There too, though, there's no simple enjoyment since you can't just ignore all that stolen art, colonial and neo-colonial thievery on lavish display. Currently, for instance, along with the the larceny always in the permanent collection like the Egyptian galleries, there's a special exhibition of "Hidden Treasures" from Afghanistan. The art and artifacts are "on loan," don't you know. Funny how you can invade and occupy a country and install a puppet government, which then "lends" you the country's treasures. Another currently featured exhibit is African and Oceanic Art. Which on the one hand looks wonderful, but on the other hand talk about expropriation. This show, from a Geneva museum whose collection began in the 1920s, "explores a rich legacy of connoisseurship," according to the Met website. Connoisseurship, oh, is that what they call it when European colonialists loot Third World countries of their cultural treasures?

OK. OK. Breathe. Relax. Because there's also this.Tomorrow evening we're heading uptown to the Rio II Gallery on Riverside Drive in Harlem for the opening of the Immigrants' Art Exhibit 2009. It's sponsored by a range of groups including the May 1st Coalition for Immigrant Rights, Taller Experimental de Arte, Arts Horizons, and the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective. From the promotional material:
Art has transformative and healing powers. It can trascend barriers, borders and differences. The exhibit provides an opportunity for immigrant artists to respond artistically to this time in history, in which immigrants are being persecuted and deprived of their rights.
Looking forward to it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Four for four

If relaxation means subsiding into a loose, lackadaisical state, letting thoughts lapse and mind drift into repose, I haven't achieved it yet. If to relax is to pass the time restfully doing that best-loved thing, then oh yeah baby, I'm relaxed, because I've spent these initial few days of my vacation reading.

Four days off. Four books read. This is the life!

I finished Attica Locke's terrific novel Black Water Rising the first evening off. Since then, I've read two other novels, Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih and Everything Matters! by Ron Currie Jr., and one nonfiction book, Dread by Philip Alcabes. I'm feeling too lazy to comment substantively about any of them; instead I'll just report that on the Goodreads five-star scale I gave Currie's book three and four stars to each of the others.

No writing yet. I'm hoping, and expect based on past patterns, that after a week or so of reading and doing little else I'll awake one morning with my own sentences running through my head and be propelled toward the keyboard to get back to work on my novel in progress.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Gone fishin'

I'm frantically trying to clear all the work off my desk at my job, racing to today's early closing for the three-day weekend -- and then I'm on vacation for the rest of the month! (Yes, it's good to have a union, and seniority!) My plan is a remedial course in the three Rs: reading, writing, and resting.

Which brings to mind a classic work of Marxist philosophy: The Right to Be Lazy. This piece was written in 1883 by the French revolutionary Paul Lafargue, who happened to be Karl Marx's son-in-law.
A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilizations hold sway. ... This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual ...

... the proletariat ... the class which in freeing itself will free humanity from servile toil and will make of the human animal a free being -- the proletariat, betraying its instincts, despising its historic mission, has let itself be perverted by the dogma of work. Rude and terrible has been its punishment.

Work, work, proletarians, to increase social wealth and your individual poverty; work, work, in order that becoming poorer, you may have more reason to work and become miserable. Such is the inexorable law of capitalist production.

If, uprooting from its heart the vice which dominates it and degrades its nature, the working class were to arise in its terrible strength, not to demand the Rights of Man, which are but the rights of capitalist exploitation, not to demand the Right to Work which is but the right to misery, but to forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day, the earth, the old earth, trembling with joy would feel a new universe leaping within her.

O Laziness, have pity on our long misery! O Laziness, mother of the arts and noble virtues, be thou the balm of human anguish!
Comrade Lafargue, you inspire me (and I even forgive you, trapped in the 19th century as you will always remain, for using "man" as the generic). O Laziness, here I come!

If I succeed in achieving true vacation mode, postings here will be sparse for the rest of the month. Cheers.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Chicago to Houston to blogville to Bravo

Some of this and some of that on the first of July ...

Melville House Books has just brought out Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover and What It Says About the Economic Crisis. MHB calls the work by Kari Lyderson a "live book," because it's based on a day-by-day series she wrote for the MobyLives blog covering the brilliant actions, including a factory sit-in and takeover, taken by workers facing layoff and plant closing at Republic Windows and Doors about six months ago. Trade unionists, activists, progressives, and all workers who heard about it were thrilled by the Republic Windows battle--which the workers won! If Lyderson's book breaks it down, how it happened, how it worked day by day, it is a contribution to the working-class struggle. We need to learn these sorts of lessons for the battles to come.

Speaking of books and battles, yesterday I started Attica Locke's superbly written and politically fascinating novel Black Water Rising. I could barely put it down to go to bed last night, barely remembered to close it and get off the train at my stop for work this morning. It's a page turner, and more. So far -- about halfway through -- I'm quite taken with how she weaves together so many themes in this tale set in early 1980s Houston: Black radicalism, racism, politics, the evil oil industry, labor union struggles, police brutality, the FBI's COINTELPRO war against Black militants. I guess technically it qualifies as a murder mystery or a thriller, but Locke takes things much further than those genre labels imply. Here she is recently speaking at a Houston library:

OK, I can't get worked up over any of this
, but it is good for a laugh, all these accomplished, successful writers making fools of themselves over negative (and not even that negative, just sort of lukewarm) reviews. As everyone knows by now, earlier this week novelist Alice Hoffman lost it in a series of crazy-ass tweets attacking, and calling for mass phone harassment of, a critic who gave her latest novel a less than stellar review. Then, after she was roundly ridiculed all over the blogosphere, she issued a sort-of apology. Now philosopher Alain de Botton has gotten into the act, posting a nutty rant on Caleb Crain's blog in response to Crain's review of de Botton's book The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (a book that, as far as I can tell, is of no interest or relevance to any of us actual workers). De Botton promises Crain, "I will hate you till the day I die." Wow, there's a scary threat. What to make of any of this? Novelist and blogger Tayari Jones to the rescue, in a thoughtful post about how writers feel about and react to poor reviews. I just love it that she compares Hoffman's twitter freak-out to last week's table flipping finale on Bravo TV's "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." Which, yes, what can I say, I watched and thoroughly enjoyed.