Thursday, January 28, 2010
I've posted several times about my mixed feelings. Love books. Sentimental attachment to same. Etc. Etc. On the other hand, hate the headaches and neckaches, the heavy backpack weighing me down, the lugging, the loaning and losing. I have no innate or principled resistance to new reading technology. I've never held a Sony Reader or Kindle in my hand and read on one, so I don't know if I'd like the experience, but I'm open to it, no, intrigued, and I can certainly see many advantages. Not least, as Andrew pointed out to me recently, that e-readers could make books more accessible for people with certain physical disabilities.
As far as I can see, though, that last is, for the moment, the only way any of these machines might in any way be a democratizing force in reading. I've been seeing that word, "democratizing," all over the Web today in various commentaries about the iPad, and I'm like, "What?" A new technology that costs $499 to $829 plus a monthly carrying fee plus forces you to buy any book you'd like to read--this is democracy? Am I missing something? Or is this just another case of all these hardware-happy middle-class folks who can afford to hop out and pick up this latest toy seeking to ascribe some progressive social function to it that it does not possess?
The purpose of these commodities is simple: profit. In the case of the iPad, unlike the Kindle, the manufacturer seems to have worked out a deal to bring the content publishers along for the moneytaking ride, so everybody's happy. Everybody who'll profit and everybody who can afford to spend that kind of money. Which leaves the rest of us, the majority of folks who live paycheck to paycheck at best, left behind. Which is natural, these being capitalist commodities and the goal of profit being inconsistent with any interest of the working class.
My bottom line doesn't change. How could it when my material conditions don't? (1) Yes, I'd love to try out an e-reading device. (2) If I liked it I'd love to possess one. (3) That can't happen unless the prices come down, way way way down, and don't include any monthly fees. (4) I don't want to be forced to buy books, whether from one store as with Amazon's Kindle or from various sellers--I want to take out library books for free, as I always have, and read them electronically.
Until we get to a place where all these requirements are met, it seems to me that the development of e-reading technology will continue in the direction it's currently headed, that is exactly the opposite of democratizing reading, rather creating a greater and greater divide between a class of haves who can afford e-reading and the have-nots who are left behind. It's not that different than what's happened with the iPhone, Blackberry and the like. Comfortable folks who can afford to buy one and pay the monthly rates all have them and all their friends have them and they think everyone has them and everyone is online all the time like they are. In fact, as several surveys have confirmed, the great majority--something like 95%--of cell phone users continue to buy plain cell phones that they use just for calls and texts because that's all we can afford. (Okay, and for some of us because who the hell wants to be online all the time even if we could afford it?)
This post's heading implies I'm evolving, and I am, really. I've moved much farther toward envisioning myself using an e-reader--in fact, I'm almost at the point of starting to yearn for one. Which is a bad thing, since the prices show no sign of dropping any time soon. However, there is one very hopeful development. Users of the Sony Reader can now read books on the device for free, library books. Yay! Hooray! I shouldn't really be cheering, because I still can't afford a Sony Reader, but at least now the platform is in place. Should the hardware ever be accessible to the masses, the masses will now have the software enabling them to read library books on the e-reader.
I'll probably return to this topic soon. Till then, let me recommend a new blog whose entire focus is all this stuff, the intersection between reading and technology. It's Literature and the Web. Novelist Meredith Sue Willis's new project, it just debuted this week and already there's much to chew on including a lively comments section.
In the end, though, there is the book. Here, via Sons of Malcolm, is Chapter 1 of A People's History of the United States: "Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress."
He was a son of the working class and always an ally to the workers and oppressed. Job well done, comrade.
Wednesday, January 27, 2010
For now, then, here's some stuff.
Frederick Douglass on Haiti, via Sukant Chandan's blog Sons of Malcolm.
Venezuela cancels Haiti's oil debt, President Hugo Chavez noting that his country is in fact historically indebted to Haiti in many ways.
Fidel: 'We are sending doctors, not soldiers.'
This Friday, in 24 cities: Stand with Haiti. Here in NYC, we, led by members of the Haitian community, will march across the Brooklyn Bridge to the Federal Building to say the people of Haiti need material human aid, not a U.S. military occupation.
This is a couple of weeks old already, but there's an interesting post over at Contra James Wood about what books published by what corporations get noticed, reviewed, sold.
This too is not new, but, sadly, it doesn't seem to ever get old. There's a lot of righteous outrage about publishers taking books with people of color protagonists and wrapping them in cover art that depicts the characters as white. The suits keep making disgusting, lame and transparently racist excuses, primarily that, well, book buyers just don't buy books with Black people on the cover. It's particularly disturbing that this tactic seems to mostly take place with young adult and children's books. Rather than restate some of the very good, sharp commentary, let me just provide some links, each of which will lead you further on with more links to more words. Here, at her blog Fledgeling, Zetta Elliott has followed the issue in a series of posts. As has Tayari Jones, here. And there's much to chew on at Color Online.
Monday, January 25, 2010
Thursday, January 21, 2010
Now, almost 50 years later, I'm hard pressed to remember the last occasion when I came even close, even glimpsed the territory, for even as much as 10 or 20 minutes. I am never ever bored. I am in fact ever less bored. Some of this has to do with the crazy way time keeps speeding up as I age--yes, everything they say about this is true, the way days are just devoured each one by the next, weeks streak by, months march forward--but time's fleetingness isn't the whole story, I don't think.
And it has nothing to do with technology, with all the screens and speakers, all that stuff flashing at us all the time. Good lord, that stuff flashing at me -- don't get started about how there's now a blaring TV forcing itself on us everywhere we go, in doctors' waiting rooms, banks, coffeehouses, stores -- is a source of brain shut-down, at least for me. And sure, I do my share of web surfing, Youtube watching, and so on. But all this, for me, is deadening, not enlivening. It drags me back down the dreaded road to that long-left-behind place where tedium reigns. And so when I catch that telltale click as my brain starts shutting down, I flee. Back to a book, most likely.
Or simply to silence. To staring out the window, at the wall, into space. In recent years, I seem to have developed more and more the ability to do nothing at all -- and do it damned well. Of course, in reality I am not doing nothing. I am thinking. Most of the time, I am thinking. Deep Thoughts ... well, thoughts anyway. There's so damned much to think about! How can anyone not grab any spare minute that presents itself?
And when I'm not thinking conscious thoughts? When my mind drifts? That of course is where writing begins. For clearing some mental space so that whatever is gurgling around there down below is permitted to rise to the surface is, as every writer knows, crucial to the creative process.
In this coming Sunday's New York Times Book Review there's an end-page essay by Jennifer Schuessler headed "Our Boredom, Ourselves." Some of it touches on the connection between doing nothing and creativity, as here:
I find it strange, an odd misread of the very research she's reporting on, that she conflates "boredom" with "doing nothing." The whole point is that doing nothing is not the same as boredom. The mind can be, and in my experience pretty much always is, very busy. At base, I find the whole concept of boredom unfathomable. What does that feeling feel like? If you're working at your job, or writing a leaflet or walking a picket line; if you're reading a book or writing a book; if you're cooking or shopping, doing laundry or bathing the babies; if you're listening to music or singing; or walking in the park or sitting at the beach--your mind is always aswirl, is it not? I'm not claiming that mine is an especially interesting mind, but it keeps me occupied.
But boredom may itself be a highly useful human capacity, at least according to some psychologists and neuroscientists, who have begun examining it not just as an accomplice to depression and addiction but as an important source of creativity, well-being and our very sense of self.
Researchers have discovered that when people are conscious but doing nothing ... the brain is in fact firing away, with greater activity in regions responsible for recalling autobiographical memory, imagining the thoughts and feelings of others, and conjuring hypothetical events: the literary areas of the brain, you might say.
If it did not, that I'd think would be the foundation of boredom -- which I know because there's really only one circumstance in which it occurs: when I'm reading a boring book. Schuessler touches on this experience too in her NYTBR piece, but I wish she'd taken it further. For is there anything more excruciating? When a book bores me, I get the most gruesome feeling, at once inside my head and along my spine and creeping up and down my arms and legs, a feeling of desperation, of being trapped, of needing to scream. It might come highly recommended, it might even be admirable for artistic or political reasons, but I cannot keep reading a boring book.
Fittingly, Schuessler closes with talk of the upcoming publication of David Foster Wallace's posthumous novel The Pale King, whose subject apparently is, in part at least, boredom. Um. Oh dear.
Tuesday, January 19, 2010
I'm late to this--embarrassingly late, as it was published in 2001--and as there've been many accolades as well as a fair amount of commentary on this book from keener analysts than I can claim to be, this will be short. But I do want to say a couple things about this book because it took my breath away.
I guess the thing that got me the most is how many levels there are to Erasure. How many layers. How many different things are going on--literarily, stylistically, thematically--and how masterfully Percival Everett holds them together. In lesser hands this could have been one wobbly structure, would have in fact probably collapsed, but he maintains the whole from start to finish. What are the parts? They include a scathing satire of literary academia, a harsh parody of "urban literature," a sort of weary and bitter perspective on race in U.S. society, assorted learned asides many of them in Latin, and a moving, emotionally powerful story of family, aging, alienation, connection, loneliness, love. You'd think some of the first elements I mentioned wouldn't work in the same book with this last, but Everett weaves it all together without, to my ear, an off note. And make no mistake: it is very much a story, with a plot and characters and much depth of feeling.
There's so much going on here, so many levels and layers, that I know I didn't get all of it. The Latin, for example, some of which I could kind of figure out by reference to French, Spanish and Italian but much of which I could not. Even aside from the Latin involved, the whole business of making fun of academia and postmodernism was to some extent over my head, as I've never been in that scene. So that while I could enjoy the general sense of what Everett was doing, I fear I missed the specific digs within, for example, a paper the main character reads at an academic conference.
Then there's the novel-within-the-novel, an angry, brutal parody that, along with a related plot line about a huge bestseller, seems to be a direct attack on Sapphire and her novel Push and at the same time a more general cri de coeur about--well, about many things, not least of them the hypocrisy of the arts establishment and the publishing industry when it comes to race and racism. As I said at the top, there's been a lot of commentary about this book, mostly about this aspect, and much of it is by African-American writers. Rather than intrude on that conversation, I commend you to it.
I had read another novel by Everett a few years back but wow am I glad I finally got to this one. His most recent, I Am Not Sidney Poitier, was already on my to-read list. Now I'm eager to get to it.
Monday, January 18, 2010
Here is a good statement that provides some political and human clarity.
Thursday, January 14, 2010
EMERGENCY RELIEF FOR HAITI--To make a tax-deductible financial donation to help with immediate delivery of first aid relief to Haiti, send checks to IFCO/Haiti Relief, 418 West 145th St., New York, NY 10031. See http://ifconews.org/ to get more information and/or to donate by credit card. (IFCO stands for Interreglious Foundation for Community Organization, which, with Pastors for Peace, has done wonderful international solidarity work for many years, under the lead of the Rev. Lucius Walker.) Also, to donate first aid supplies and personal hygiene goods,contact Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees at 718-735-4660. These are the folks to trust to actually work to aid the people--unlike the Pentagon, which is exploiting this tragedy to step up its occupation of Haiti; U.S. domination and exploitation are a big part of the cause of that country's poverty, and are not the solution.
Meanwhile, the focus of tomorrow's Wall Street rally on Dr. King's birthday has been shifted. It will now be a solidarity event with the people of Haiti. More here. Be sure to scroll down to the petition demanding that the Wall Street bank bonuses go instead to the people of Haiti.
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Make aid donations via the organization Madre.
Jean-Bertrand Aristide--the rightfully elected president who was ousted, kidnaped and forcibly flown out of the country in a coup not only orchestrated but openly carried out by the U.S. in 2004 and who now lives in exile in South Africa--mourns "a tragedy that defies expression."
The brilliant Haitian-American novelist Edwidge Danticat was on Democracy Now this morning.
The Brooklyn-based newspaper Haiti Progress does not yet have anything posted online, but we should keep checking, for this organ of the Haitian left will be one of the best sources for accurate information. I'm sending all solidarity to my sisters and brothers at Haiti Progress and in the Lavalas movement.
I'll also be checking Granma for Cuba's response, which will undoubtedly be substantial material aid unless the U.S. blocks it.
Why is a natural disaster so much more devastating for some countries than others? It's an apt moment to return to the collection Haiti: A Slave Revolution for some of the answers, rooted in history.
Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Before then, how about reading up on what's really behind the ramped-up war moves against the tiny nation of Yemen? An excellent analysis by Abayomi Azikiwe here.
And here, Palestinian Marxist and former political prisoner Dr. Abdel Samara discusses the role of the Arab compradore regimes in buffering imperialism and its garrison state Israel against the Palestinian national liberation struggle. I heard Dr. Samara speak recently, and he was terrifically interesting and sharp. I'd like to read one of his books; I believe there's one that's been translated into English.
There's actually quite a lot more I'm enthusing about, and will share in the days to come.
- The Kandinsky exhibit at the Guggenheim. It's been there since mid-September. I've had a note about it posted above my desk since then. It closes tomorrow. I never went. The $18 admission fee ... impossible viewing hours ... full schedule ... inertia ... sloth ... idiot idiot idiot.
- The O'Keefe exhibit at the Whitney. The vagina paintings, quaintly titled "Abstraction." It's been there since mid-September. I've had a note about it posted above my desk since then. It closes in five days. I never went, and can't get there now. The $18 admission fee ... impossible viewing hours ... full schedule ... inertia ... sloth ... idiot idiot idiot.
- All the books I haven't read. All the books I haven't written. All the fighting to fix the world I haven't done.
- Shelves undusted. Rugs unvacuumed. Floors unswept. Laundry unlaundered. Life un...oh who knows. Yeah, it's that kind of day.
The missed opportunities. The falling short. The starting anew, again and again.
The starting anew.
Sunday, January 10, 2010
Also last week I read a story by Joyce Carol Oates that shows she's still had Marilyn Monroe on her mind, at least as of 2004 collection I Am No One You Know. The story is "Three Girls." The title characters are two NYU students plus MM, whom they spy attempting to browse and buy books incognito at the Strand in 1956. It's short, sweet, and altogether delightful. The book jacket features this excerpt from a Jane Smiley piece on JCO, which strikes me as right on target as to the writer and her project.
With her prodigious gifts of invention and her systematic exploration of literary history, she has gone beyond the demands of the marketplace. ... Like J.S. Bach, Joyce Carol Oates often seems to be working in private, cultivating the variety and complexity of her vision in service to something larger than a literary career.Last night I watched the 2004 movie Heir to an Execution: A Granddaughter's Story. It is a documentary about Ethel Rosenberg and Julius Rosenberg and their family, and how their trial and executions affected their family. The filmmaker is the Rosenbergs' granddaughter Ivy Meeropol. I'd recently found the DVD, weirdly enough, in a $5 bin at Staples. The film is good, especially keeping in mind that it's not meant exactly as a political defense of the Rosenbergs but rather an exploration of various questions from the angle of the family. I was pretty weepy through most of it, just as I'd been embarrassingly weepy when I attended the 2003 event at Town Hall marking the 50th anniversary of the executions. I especially liked the interviews with various contemporaries and comrades of the Rosenbergs. I was left wishing for a fuller political treatment, but that would be a different movie, not the one Ms. Meeropol set out to make. It would explore more about the anti-Semitic character of the anti-Rosenberg campaign, about the international context, the anti-communist purges of the unions, and so on, in other words, more about that terrible time. And it would explicitly identify the Rosenbergs as heroes, especially if Julius did aid the Soviet Union in any way. Because aiding the Soviet Union during and after World War II meant both helping that country to survive and helping to ensure a balance of armaments, which at that point was the only thing holding U.S. imperialism in check. The U.S. did invade Korea in 1950, but although it waged a horrific war to crush the Korean revolution, although it killed 2 million Koreans and came very close to dropping the atomic bomb on the north, it ultimately did not use nuclear weapons, for which I believe we have the existence of a nuclear-armed USSR to thank. Which means we also have the Rosenbergs to thank if they--meaning from all indications Julius, for Ethel's heroism was in refusing to aid and abet the U.S. government in its anticommunist campaign, refusing to turn against either Julius or anyone else on the lists of names the prosecutors tried to get her to endorse--if they did provide any type of help as the working-class internationalist partisans that they so admirably were.
Thursday, January 7, 2010
Speaking of children's books and work by writers of color, I recently came across this and this. For some time now I've been checking out Zetta Elliott's blog Fledgeling, which follows these issues and more.
Also thanks to Tayari Jones for the heads-up on what sounds like a great book: Wench, by Dolen Perkins-Valdez.
The death of Mary Daly reminds me of all those books I read in the 70s, like her Gyn/Ecology, originally published in 1978.
Several pieces about books set for publication in 2010 have caught my interest ... only to quickly lose it. A combination of the usual subjects--of my distaste, that is, like Roth, DeLillo, MacEwan--and of the overrated, at least by my read of their earlier books, like Ferris, Bolaño, Egan, Lipsyte, Shriver, Carey, Mitchell, plus a soupcon of the reactionary like Kostova and Amis. David Foster Wallace is in a class apart as the worth of Infinite Jest eludes me yet a lot of folks I respect seem to like him and now that he's become sort of a saint I'm squeamish about dissing him; still, I doubt I'll rush to buy his posthumous The Pale King. On the other hand, there are a number of titles I'm looking forward to. These include the latest by Louise Erdrich, Philip Pullman, Chang-Rae Lee, Rachel Cusk, Carleen Brice, the always reliable and always underrated Anne Tyler, the uneven but always worth checking out Jane Smiley, and Jasper Fforde of whose silly 'Eyre Affair' series I am, I admit, quite fond.
Most of the 'coming in 2010' lists that I've seen are, surprise surprise, pretty limited. Heavily weighted toward the white, the male, the written in English. I'll be keeping my eye out for writers from the rest--that is, the vast majority--of the world.
Check it out: Fuck Yeah Marxism-Leninism.
And now for something completely different ... and hilarious. Especially for anyone who is like me an inveterate watcher of TV documentaries of this sort. I'm having trouble importing the actual video, but please do go watch it on Youtube: Beatles 3000. You won't regret it.
Tuesday, January 5, 2010
Monday, January 4, 2010
Haven't heard of Victor? Wonder why the government is trying to deport him? Check it out: the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective tells some truth.
Sunday, January 3, 2010
Yesterday Teresa and I watched a good movie, Sleep Dealer. It's sci-fi social commentary, very well done in my opinion. It envisions a near-future scenario in which U.S. megamonopolies have realized their fondest dream: wringing profit from workers without having the workers physically present. They've solved the problem of immigrant labor by doing away with the immigrants while retaining the labor. The means is a nightmarish high-tech hook-up. The plot also involves imperialist theft of water, which is more and more a top issue facing the nations of the South. Best of all, it ends on a note of hope and struggle. Very satisfying, and with fine writing and acting to boot.
I'm intrigued and want to read the new historical novel Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco. I did take in quite a nice haul of bookstore gift certificates last month, and either I'll use some of that to buy this book or take it out of the library. I'm a little wary given the praise from sources like the New York Times, which is no friend to Palestine. Also, unhip and behind the times though it makes me, I have to say that I'm not a fan of graphic books. I keep trying them and feeling let down, feeling at the end that, well, no, a picture is not worth a thousand words, a thousand words would have had so much more depth, this stayed so unsatisfyingly on the surface. Keep trying I will, though, and who knows, maybe this'll be the one that changes my view.
The Dec. 26 death of Dennis Brutus, the great South African poet and activist, must be noted albeit a week late. In a statement his family commented: "Dennis lived his life as so many would wish to, in service to the causes of justice, peace, freedom and the protection of the planet. He remained positive about the future, believing that popular movements will achieve their aims." Brutus, like most other South African leaders including Nelson Mandela, was always steadfast in his support of the Palestinian people, likening their struggle to the anti-apartheid battle to which he had devoted so many years. Just a year ago he led a protest in Durban against the Israeli ambassador to decry the criminal war against Gaza.
Earlier in December the novelist Carlene Hatcher Polite died. I'm sorry to say that stumbling upon this obituary was the first time I'd ever heard of her but it certainly makes me want to read her work.
Saturday, January 2, 2010
Then I spent a week or so reading a very different novel. One for which I can't really make much of a case on any level other than fun. A guilty pleasure, then, of the sort that if this were a different season might be classified beach reading. World Without End by Ken Follett. Which, I cannot tell a lie, I enjoyed immensely. It's a great behemoth of a story set in 14th century England, a sort of sequel to his earlier novel The Pillars of the Earth, which was set in the same town in the 12th century and also a very fun, fat read. Like the earlier one, this book is chockablock with twisty soap-opera-ish plot devices, twirly-mustache-type villains and endearing salt-of-the-earth heroes. Most important, again like the earlier tome, it provides what I found to be an absolutely fascinating portrayal of life in medieval England, of the workings of the feudal system in particular, so in that sense it actually is up my alley, a study of class relations in the class system that predated capitalism. The writing is functional, adequate to the task. Not beautiful, but not awful unreadable dreck like James Patterson or some such. The characters can no doubt be critiqued as anachronistically unrealistic in their attitudes and speech, but they weren't so much so that it ever stopped me up short. OK, this is not great literature. But it is a great story that kept me hanging, kept me staying up late reading and rushing back to it each morning. Very satisfying, as a guilty pleasure ought to be.
As for writing, yeah, I did some of that. Not as much as I oughta shoulda, but not as little as I mighta. I've written about half the days, I'd say. Made some small progress on the novel, and some small progress on rewriting a story. Most important, I did get into a decent rhythm that I just might manage to sustain as I re-enter real life. I've concocted a writing schedule that I believe is sustainable--realistic given my perennial problems with lack of sleep and resultant fatigue, the unfortunate necessity of working 40 hours a week, and my at this point minimal but still vital political commitments--and so I'm feeling fairly optimistic, no, make that revved-up, raring to go, as I move forward into the new year.
When I head outside to run some errands a little later, I'll be mailing a letter I wrote to political prisoner Lynne Stewart. At the Solidarity Center new year's eve party I attended, I had the pleasure of sitting and chatting for a while with Ralph Pointer, longtime activist and Lynne's husband, and that inspired me to write her. Ralph told me that Lynne is doing well--in fact, while it would be wrong to say she's thriving in prison, she is being beautifully taken care of. Not by the guards, of course. By the sisters who are imprisoned with her. As we all expected, the other inmates have taken her under their wing and are treating her wonderfully. They all love and respect her so much for her life's work that they are devoting themselves to her care while she's inside the walls with them.