Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On our anniversary, a poetic interlude

Today this blog is two years old. Woo-hoo! What a wild old time we've had, my friends.

A time, anyway. With its ups and downs, its raves and rants, certainties and confusions. Threats of oblivion, promises of eternity. All this and more is no doubt in store as I proceed into year three. I hope you'll come along. There's a lot more red reading to do.

Now, to the matter at hand. I don't read much poetry, certainly nowhere near enough poetry, whatever enough would be. One of the side effects of not reading much poetry is that you become frightened, intimidated by the form. Overawed at its mysterious ways. Poetry is a strange, forbidding land to those of us who enter it rarely. We feel we haven't a passport. We most certainly don't know the language. Abandon hope all ye who enter here, as the poet said--not that poetry seems like hell, in fact it feels more like heaven, a paradise forbidden to we who haven't earned entry. And so you find yourself caught in a domino effect of your own readerly limitations, wanting, yearning even, to read poetry, but scared that poetry will reject you. Poetry the vast forbidding ocean, you a fiction-reading literal-minded landlubber of a dolt.

Nevertheless. I've read some poetry lately. A book and a chapbook. And it's been great.

The book is Blood Dazzler, Patricia Smith's profound, intense collection about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina. These poems are pyrotechnic. Smith is a stunning artist. I have no idea how she does what she does with words.

The poems range upon the landscape (and seascape) of those terrible days five years ago. Many speak in a particular persona: a homeowner, an evacuee, the hurricane herself, other hurricanes, George W. Bush, a drag queen, even a dog. Even the Superdome itself weighs in. And, in a, yes, dazzling, heartbreaking series of short testimonies, a poem that takes the voices of 34 residents of a nursing home who were found drowned. Here's one:
And I am left, no deity hovering,
no black hair on my head,
all of me thinner than when I began.

Fingers of ice climb me,
reach my dimming light,
and choke my only angel.
Here's a bit from the amazing poem "The President Flies Over":
I babble the landscape--what staunch, vicious trees,
what cluttered roads, slow cars. This is my

country as it was gifted me--victimless, vast.
The soundtrack buzzing the air around my ears
continually loops ditties of eagles and oil.

There's much more but my best advice is for you to buy the book and read it whole. It will break you a little. What better job can poetry do? (Also see Tayari Jones' blog about a "choreoplay" based on Smith's book that debuted in New York last week.)

I also recently read a chapbook, Outside the Clinic by Andrew Rihn, a kind gift from the poet himself, who has done something unique here. This is a collection about abortion rights written by a man. If I heard that description without knowing anything else, I'd probably get my back up--what does a man know about it, what right does a man have writing about this? But Rihn isn't trying to speak for, and definitely not trying to preach to, women. Rather, he's thinking about the question of women's reproductive rights from his perspective, that of a man who supports it. What's on offer here is a series of meditations that, somewhat similarly to how Smith writes in various voices, looks at the question from various angles, from varying perspectives, not shying away from any. The result is a sort of opening up, an unfolding, of this fraught issue, that has a fresh, liberating feel.

Rihn's chapbook is inspired by the work of, and a reaction to the assassination of, Dr. George Tiller, the dedicated women's health provider who was murdered because he refused to stop performing abortions, including late-term procedures. One of the more moving poems is addressed to Dr. Tiller. From "Taking Heart":
The first woman you refused
had no choice, but chose anyway.
She went where she had to, without
options or safety, and she died
of that drought. What kind of man
could understand such thirst? Our
bodies are different, our barometers
read other pressures. Such harsh lessons
are taught every day in clinics
we never enter. We pass by them,
as men of good standing, ignoring
their calls to ruthless education.
It's good to have allies. Long live political poetry!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Compare & contrast

I sold some books yesterday at the funky little Saturdays-only used bookstore in my neighborhood. I hadn't planned to buy any, and I didn't search the shelves, but somehow while I was glancing around as I stood at the counter waiting for the guy to tote up what I'd brought in, one book grabbed my attention and stared me down until I walked over and picked it up. Don't know where the intuition came from that this title, which I'm not conscious of having heard of, was one that would interest me. But wow am I glad I gave it a look.

It is the novel The Stars Look Down by A.J. Cronin. The book, originally published in 1935, was reissued in the U.S. in this 1963 edition by Little, Brown (not the edition featured on It's beautiful, substantial, a sturdy paperback, the cover made of a heavy stock that's got a great weave texture with a stunning black and tan graphic design. Here's how the back cover describes this book:
The Stars Look Down is recognized as one of the most powerful novels of social protest ever written. It is set during the years 1903-1933 in a desolate Scottish mining district which produces both war profiteers such as the ruthless Joe Gowlan and gentle idealists such as Arthur Barras, who becomes a conscientious objector to prove his opposition to his own father's policies. The Neptune mine disaster, where one hundred men are killed and ten trapped miners starve to death in a blocked shaft, is one of many unforgettable scenes.
Sounds great, right? Here's something else to love: the introduction is "by Joseph Mersand, chairman of the English Department at Jamaica High School in New York City." I can't imagine that a Queens high school teacher today would get to write the introduction to a major novel.

And a major novel this is. Little known though it may now be, it had a great impact upon first publication in 1935. The New York Times reviewer, for instance, wrote, "It is impossible to conceive of a reader laying aside The Stars Look Down once he has started the tale. It is equally impossible to conceive of any reader not recommending the book far and wide."

During the Great Depression there was a flowering of proletarian literature such as this novel. People would have laughed in the face of anyone who mouthed some folderol about politics and art being incompatible. Even almost 30 years later, when this edition was published, Mersand wrote in his introduction: "Many works of fiction deal with a trivial aspect of life or superficial people, and they are forgotten almost before the works are finished. The Stars Look Down deals with a universal theme--the theme of capital versus labor and the human relationships involved."

Oh-ho! A universal theme! Right you were, Mr. Mersand, but I wonder if you suspected that a time would soon come when any attempt to express that theme would be quashed, silenced, ridiculed as antithetical to art. And that what you correctly characterized as the "trivial" aspects of life would be deemed the sole suitable focus.

It's interesting to read the few reviews of this novel at Amazon. One derides it as Marxist propaganda. The rest rave, one reader even calling it the greatest novel of the 20th century. Can it be that despite the ruling class's best efforts, their proscription against class-struggle fiction crumples uselessly when readers actually get a chance to pick up and read such a book? That's the rub, of course, that such books no longer get published and readers get no chance to read them.

This book, though, did have quite a time of it. Not only was it hailed as a masterpiece. It was made into a movie starring Michael Redgrave and Lionel Barrymore that is still considered one of the best movies ever. Later, it was a TV miniseries in Italy starring Giancarlo Giannini. A few years after that came another TV miniseries, this one in England. It has also been a stage play, adapted several times. Finally, and this was news to me (well, all this is news to me), it turns out that this novel that I'm now dying to dive into was a major inspiration for the current Broadway musical Billy Elliot, whose opening number is titled "The Stars Look Down."

Compare and contrast, then. On our left: A.J. Cronin and The Stars Look Down. On the right: the  bourgeois-imperialist lit hero of the moment (see previous post) explaining that fiction is about personal relationships. Can anyone still need convincing that the class struggle is playing out all the time not only on the job and the battlefield but on the cultural front as well?

That was more or less a rhetorical question, but in case anyone answered yes, here's more proof. Cronin, a doctor, also wrote a novel called The Citadel. Keeping in mind the pitfalls of crowdsourcing, here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry on this book:
The Citadel, the tale of a mining company doctor's struggle to balance scientific integrity with social obligations, incited the establishment of the National Health Service in the United Kingdom by exposing the inequity and incompetence of medical practice at the time. In the novel, Cronin advocated a free public health service ...
OK I need not go on and on. Obviously, I've entered another one of my book excitements. A chance glance at a book garage and I'm all agog about a novel I'd never heard of, itching to enter its pages and be transported.

The anointed one, liberal Zionist edition

This week's ubiquitous literary lionization is of David Grossman, an Israeli writer, whose novel To the End of the Land, newly published here in English translation, has been ushered directly, do not stop, do not pass go, into the canon. Why? To boil down the adorations in today's New York Times Book Review and last week's New Yorker: because he is a "leftist"; because he has written in the past about "the situation"; because this novel takes as its background "the situation"; because the book achieves particularly tragic dimension due to its back story, to whit the death of the author's son amid "the situation"; and, most of all, because despite all this purportedly political resonance, Grossman clarifies to everyone's satisfaction that his job as a novelist is to explore interpersonal relationships, not politics.

There's some stunning hypocrisy at play here. Neither today's NYTBR's front-page review nor last week's study of Grossman in the New Yorker shies away from addressing the political context of his work. It's evident, in fact, that a large part of the admiration for his books, above all this novel, is grounded in politics. This is political art, this is a political artist, and these are political literary analyses that place Grossman's fiction in the top rank as much for its politics as for its artistry, if not more. Yet at the same time the analysts, and Grossman himself, deny the essentially political nature of his work. From George Packer's love letter in the New Yorker:
To be an Israeli writer means making peace with the tyranny of ha-mat-sav, "the situation." War, occupation, and political turmoil could easily fill novel after novel, squeezing out the private spaces of domestic life and the individual imagination. Grossman, though he values his journalism, leaves no doubt which is his essential function. "Please remember, I'm a novelist," he told me. "And what interests me most is the nuances of what goes on between two people, or between a person and himself." He didn't want merely to issue statements on the Gaza flotilla or the peace talks.
This in the middle of a lengthy paean to Grossman for issuing statements, holding peace signs and the like. He is everywhere portrayed as a leftist, an anti-war activist, a friend to the Palestinians and so on. He is none of this, based on the evidence in these pieces. Tragically, an actual left hardly exists at all in Israel. Only the smallest proportion of Israelis hold and act on a legitimately left position: anti-Zionist. Against this tiny brave band of Israelis who have broken entirely with the racist project that is Zionism stands the wing of which Grossman is a part: liberal Zionists. He and his cohort support and defend the essence of Zionism, which is the establishment and maintenance of a racist, exclusionist Jewish settler state based on the theft of Palestine and expulsion of its original inhabitants. They wish for the continuance and safety of this criminal entity "Israel" rather than its replacement with a democratic, secular Palestine founded on the right to return of all Palestinians and full equality among all inhabitants.

They back up their support for the Zionist state with their lives, by serving in its armed forces. They wear the IDF uniform and carry the U.S.-supplied weapons. They harass, humiliate and in every possible way make life miserable for Palestinian women, men and children. And they kill them. They do so in occupied Palestine, whether it's inside the 1948 borders or within the only sections that they, the liberal Zionists like Grossman, concede to acknowledge as "the occupation," that is, Gaza and the West Bank. Or they do so as part of one of Israel's many invasions and assaults, particularly on Lebanon. Wherever, whenever, they do so: they obey the law and carry out their military service.

Grossman did, twice, the second time when he was called up as a reservist to take part in the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Remember the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon? It was a wanton, murderous spree that culminated in the massacre of Palestinians at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, masterminded by Ariel Sharon. Of his part, Grossman says, "I have no hesitation regarding serving in the Army. I know where we are living." He apparently has no reservations about sending his children to do the same Zionist dirty work, although we are meant to sympathize with him for the loss of his son who was an IDF soldier taking part in yet another Israeli invasion of Lebanon, this one in 2006, when he died.

I'm not hard-hearted, far from it. I grieve the loss of those killed serving as cannon fodder for the cause of imperialism, as with U.S. soldiers' deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it's also sad that youths like Grossman's son die serving as cannon fodder for the Israeli settler state, which in essence serves the same cause, that is, the interests of the U.S. oil oligarchs. However, for every U.S. GI who dies in Iraq or Afghanistan, a hundred or more times that many Iraqis and Afghanis have died. For every IDF soldier killed doing the dirty work of the settler state, and, by proxy, of U.S. imperialism, a hundred or more times that many Palestinians die, as well as Lebanese and others. 

They, the Grossmans and their sons and daughters, do not have to do it. They do not have to serve. They could resist. They could refuse. There are those who do. Their numbers are still only in the tens and twenties, but slowly they are growing, the ranks of the refuseniks who go to jail rather than raise a rifle against Palestine. There's also a related phenomenon little noticed or commented on in the bourgeois media: young people leaving Israel. I personally know of three young men who've moved to the U.S. after refusing to serve in the IDF, all of whom are now ardent anti-Zionists.

Not so Grossman. He seeks a kinder, gentler racist settler state. For that he's the literary darling of the moment. Not hereabouts he's not.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The lists

It's as if I should be reaching for a cigarette and a drink, that's the kind of post- ... no, not that, you big sillies, the kind of post-reading state I'm in. I finished The Warmth of Other Suns yesterday and am still awash in the glow of its depth, its brilliance, its broad perspective, wide range, its compassion, information, importance. I'm not quite in that take-to-my-bed fever that I've experienced a few times in my life upon finishing a great novel. Perhaps only fiction can actually make me ill. But I am a little shaky, a little swoony, off my stride, as all I learned from Isabel Wilkerson's magisterial work settles in. It costs $30 so I can't, but if I could I'd like to buy it and give it to everyone I know, that's how important this book seems to me to be.

As I started a new book this morning, it occurred to me to take a look at my reading this year. It seems I've read 60 books so far in 2010. Thirty-two written by women, 28 by men. This slight skew wasn't by design but it pleases me. It does not please me to see that of the 60 books I've read to date, the majority are by white authors. The author breakdown: 23 people of color, 37 white. I can scrabble to rationalize--a criminally small proportion of English-language U.S.-published books is by authors of color, and my list's proportions are much better than that--but I don't think I should. In a world the vast majority of whose inhabitants are people of color, in a class struggle in which the even vaster majority of our side is people of color, a red reader should be reading the words of the world's people. I am conscious of that--in fact, that is one of the points I make most often on this blog--but clearly I need to step up the effort. The ruling class does everything possible to make this difficult; a class-conscious reader has to overcome those obstacles.

Over the last several weeks, what with the publication of Jonathan Franzen's new novel and its immediate beatification by the literary powers that be, and then the dissent raised on behalf of writers with "lady parts" by Jennifer Weiner and others, and then the Franzen pick as an Oprah Book, there's been a brief upswell in mainstream media attention to the ongoing issue of sexism, and, to a far lesser extent in most of the pieces by various commentators, racism, in publishing. There's been an interesting point or two made. That's about all I can work myself up to say about it, steeped as it all is in bourgeois consciousness.

If you're looking for vital analysis of issues of representation in a very important wing of publishing, head over to Fledgeling. Author Zetta Elliott has studied the figures for Young Adult publication in this country. She finds that less than 2 percent of the YA titles published this year were by Black authors. That's out of about 3,000 books. What an outrage.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Jill Johnston

Jill Johnston died yesterday at 81. She was a longtime writer for the Village Voice; a respected, even revered, dance critic and cultural commentator; and one of our first great radical lesbian voices during the early flowering of the modern lesbian and gay movement in the Stonewall era.

Now, I'm not saying I agreed with, at least not for more than a minute or two, the substance of what she wrote in her quasi-separatist classic Lesbian Nation--hell, even she didn't, in later years fondly referring to it as "a period piece"--but it was an exhilarating object to hold in your hand back in the early 70s.

Actually, for me, holding, then reading, this book was a process of stages all tied up with coming out of the closet. Fear preceded exhilaration. I remember sneakily, furtively, pulling it from the shelf in the public library and sitting at a back-corner table with it, holding it so that the cover wouldn't show, terrified that someone would see the title in that big bold blue font and tell my mother that I was reading this crazy scary outrageous lesbian book and that this must mean I was a lesbian. This was in 1973, the year it was published, so I was 19, and I must have been home from college for a weekend or something, because my memory is clear that it was my hometown library, which my mother frequented, and that I was very concerned that her friends the librarians not see the book I was holding. With all that cowering and covering, I didn't really read it, just sort of cradled it. (Another note here on the book as object: who will ever have such Kindle memories?) Although it would be some years before I actually sat down and read it, I burst out of the closet within a few months after my furtive interlude in the library shadows with Lesbian Nation, and I do believe that something about the existence of that book with that title helped give me the strength and courage to do so.

I've always had a soft spot for Johnston because of this, her book's part in my own little coming-out struggle. And for this, as well: the famous night in 1971 when she, as one of several feminists taking on author Norman Mailer in a sort of debate, spoke her words and then acted them out, simulating lesbian sex on stage with another woman, as the celebrated misogynist huffed and chuffed and growled, "Act like a lady."

She was not a comrade of mine in the struggle for socialism. Though she was anti-authoritarian and radical in many ways, and conscious of the political dimension of the arts, she was not a Marxist. No doubt there was much in her many writings with which I would part company. But she never did act like a lady. She helped me and who knows how many others leave all that lady crap behind. For this I'm grateful, and I'm sorry to hear of her death.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Reparations: this is why

At just about 100 pages into it, it's a relief to report that for once I'm in accord with a passel of glowing reviews about a new book. The book in question: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Relief, yes, but the rest of my reaction is more sober, for reading this book, especially in these early pages, is a contradictory experience. It's a pleasure because of many factors--the writing, which is absolutely masterful, the kind of stunningly precise yet also exquisitely beautiful artistic writing whose lack in most nonfiction is why I usually stick to fiction; the political acuity with which Wilkerson paints a portrait of the Jim Crow South to show the conditions that gave rise to the exodus of some 6 million African Americans in the Great Migration; the detail; the truth telling; the way she brings the reader inside the consciousness of characters major and minor--but pleasure is not, cannot be, the right word for this reading experience. Not when there is so much pain and horror laid out on every page.

Wilkerson uses the term feudalism to refer to slavery and also to the long decades of counter-revolution after the brief flourishing of Reconstruction was overthrown. The feudal economy of sharecropping chained Black labor to the land still owned by the old slaveocracy. Jim Crow legally codified the feudal social conditions down to the most seemingly trivial minutiae of everyday life so as to ensure and enforce the subjugation of the African American nation at penalty of death for any infraction. Indeed, Jim Crow was typified by lynch law above all, and Wilkerson is unsparing in showing how racist mob rule amounted to a nearly century-long reign of terror carried out by terrorists garbed in white robes, sheriffs' and police uniforms, and plain clothes.

She also draws a clear picture of the conditions of daily life for the Black masses of the Jim Crow South, from the most impoverished toilers in the cotton fields to the relatively, that is marginally, better off. As I read, it strikes me that with this clear, detailed, factual presentation, with this laying out of what was done to African America in the period after the official legal end of slavery, Wilkerson is making the case for reparations. That's my conclusion, not anything she comes out and says directly, at least not so far. But what else can be concluded from, for one example, the following passages?

In the book, Wilkerson not only provides voluminous and well-researched information but illustrates the real-life experience of these facts and figures by tracing the life story of three individuals who took part in the Great Migration. One of them grew up in Louisiana, the son of schoolteachers; his mother taught seventh grade and his father was the principal, both at the local high school for "colored" children. College-educated, educators themselves, they had to keep milk cows to make enough money to survive and take care of their children.
... His father, his mother, and the other teachers at Monroe Colored High School were working long hours with hand-me-down supplies for a fraction of the pay their counterparts were getting. In Louisiana in the 1930s, white teachers and principals were making an average salary of $1,165 a year. Colored teachers and principals were making $499 a year, forty-three percent of what the white ones were.
Pershing's parents could console themselves that they were faring better than colored teachers in other southern states, a reflection not necessarily of their superior performance but that there were states even worse than Louisiana when it came to teachers' pay. In neighboring Mississippi, white teachers and principals were making $630 a year, while the colored ones were paid a third of that--$215 a year, hardly more than field hands. But knowing that didn't ease the burden of the Fosters' lives, get their children through college, or allow them to build assets to match their status and education.
Having established the facts, Wilkerson offers this devastating conclusion:
The disparity in pay, reported without apology in local papers for all to see, would have far-reaching effects. It would mean that even the most promising of colored people, having received next to nothing in material assets from their slave foreparents, had to labor with the knowledge that they were now being underpaid by more than half, that they were so behind it would be all but impossible to accumulate the assets their white counterparts could, and that they would, by definition, have less to leave succeeding generations than similar white families. Multiplied over the generations, it would mean a wealth deficit between the races that would require a miracle windfall or near asceticism on the part of colored families if they were to have any chance of catching up or amassing anything of value. Otherwise, the chasm would continue, as it did for blacks as a group even into the succeeding century. The layers of accumulated assets built up by the better-paid dominant caste, generation after generation, would factor into a wealth disparity of white Americans having an average net worth ten times that of black Americans by the turn of the twenty-first century, dampening the economic prospects of the children and grandchildren of both Jim Crow and the Great Migration before they were even born.
Could there be a more cogent argument for the reparations that this country owes to the descendants of enslaved Africans? 

Because the first section of The Warmth of Other Suns has brought this issue to mind so sharply for me, this seems a good moment to recommend two books that make the case for reparations: The Debt by Randall Robinson and Marxism, Reparations & the Black Freedom Struggle, edited by Monica Moorehead. Congress has refused to ever consider a bill introduced many times over the last 20 years by U.S. Rep. John Conyers of Detroit--refused to even consider a bill that would simply acknowledge the crimes of slavery, study their continuing impact on African Americans and make recommendations for reparations.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Artists for the Cuban 5

Danny Glover with Gerardo Hernandez last month at the federal pentientiary in Victorville, California, where the great actor visited the Cuban hero and pledged to organize actors and artists in support of the Cuban 5.    
Danny Glover, a longtime friend of the Cuban Revolution and of all struggles for justice and peace, is stepping up the campaign to demand freedom for the Cuban 5. As of yesterday, Sept. 12, these five young men have been in U.S. prisons for 12 long years. They are serving sentences ranging from 15 years to double-life plus 15 years. A double life sentence with 15 years added onto that! What did they do? Murder, chop up and eat children? No. Here's what they did: infiltrate terrorist groups that operate in Florida and report to the Cuban and U.S. governments on these terrorists' plans for bombings and other violent attacks inside Cuba.

In other words, they prevented terrorist attacks on civilian targets in their country. Not only that, they provided full information on the terrorists' actions and plans to the FBI--64 files filled with all the data. So they're heroes, right? Not to the U.S. government. Instead of arresting the terrorists they arrested Gerardo and his compatriots Ramón Labañino, Rene González, Antonio Guerrero, and Fernando González. And have ever since subjected them to brutal treatment, including long stretches of solitary confinement, all of them held in different states, blocking family visits. To all of which these five brave brothers have reacted with strength and steadfastness. That will no doubt continue.

But it should not have to. They should be free. And so yesterday Danny Glover and his co-chairperson Ed Asner of Actors and Artists United for the Freedom of the Cuban 5 issued a call to their colleagues inviting them to add their name to a letter to President Obama urging him to issue an order of clemency to free the five. Among those who've already signed on: Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, Susan Sarandon, Elliot Gould, Chrissie Hynde, Bonnie Raitt, Esai Morales. If you're an artist of any type, please sign on to this urgent call. If you'd rather be invited directly by Danny Glover, check out his video appeal here.

The ever impossibly lengthening to-read list

The piles at my house--on several dedicated to-read shelves, on my desk, and since the summer on my side of the dresser--are really and truly out of control. Who gives a damn? Not me. As long as nobody turns me in as a candidate for a very special episode of A&E's horrifying show Hoarders, I'll keep tooting along on my merry reader's way.

And now I have in my hands The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, Beyond Katrina by Natasha Trethewey, Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcón, Genesis which is the first book of the Memory of Fire trilogy by Eduardo Galeano and which I've been searching for for quite a while and finally just found in a newly issued edition, and I'm all like, which first, and do these go at the top of the pile because I'm crazy excited to get at them, or do I move through some of the others that have been waiting a while and which after all I was crazy excited about when I got my hands on them?

So do I really need this? More books to obsess over as they come along this fall?

No sweat, though. Turns out there aren't too many, on this list at least, that interest me. I read and was repulsed by Tom McCarthy's first novel Remainder for, among other things, its vaguely fascist vibe, so his new one doesn't appeal. Nor will I rush to read Sigrid Nuñez's new novel after having been subjected to her beautifully written but politically infuriating "madness of the 60s" masterpiece The Last of Her Kind. There are petit-bourgeois-family-angst novels; there are quite a few anticommunist titles, natch; there's Philip Roth his head should root in the soil like an onion; there's bleh this and yecch that. But oh oh -- oh oh -- wait -- on the other hand.

On the other hand, here comes a new one from Joyce Carol Oates, and with a great title: Sourland. And By Nightfall, Michael Cunningham's new novel; I've had mixed feelings about his work over the years but he does write some painfully beautiful sentences which isn't enough to sustain a novel but is part of why I'll still sit down with whatever new book he offers. And a debut collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, by a young writer I've been hearing great things about, Danielle Evans.

If only I didn't have to waste my days working for a wage.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Yesterday in NYC: unity against racism

Yesterday's demonstration in support of Muslim people was a fantastic success. About 10,000 people filled the streets of lower Manhattan in a show of solidarity that was terrifically heartening--and that blew away the puny racist Tea Party effort two blocks over. 

Photo: Greg Butterfield

New York is not a Tea Party town! New York is a union town, and there was good labor representation and many union members. New York is a multinational city, probably the most multinational city in the world, and the march and rally reflected this, with people of so many nationalities coming together to defend the sisters and brothers under attack by the capitalist-backed forces of reaction. New York is an immigrant city, and immigrants, documented and undocumented, speaking many languages, swelled the ranks. New York is an LGBT town, and as always at any progressive manifestation, there were tons of LGBT people. And so on: this was unity at its best, a joining together of communities that demonstrated to the enemy class and its duped minions that despite their worst efforts to sow racism and division, here in the most unionized, most multinational city in the country, they will not pass.

Check it out.
Photo: Greg Butterfield
Photo: Greg Butterfield
Photo: Greg Butterfield
Photo: Brenda Sandburg

Photo: Brenda Sandburg

Just for fun, here's me performing my small task yesterday: collecting donations to help pay for the costs of the event.

Photo: Greg Butterfield

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Too busy to blog links

Breaking my self-imposed rule against taking the easy route of linking instead of thinking: .
That's it for now. I hope to see all you who live in the vicinity on New York City's September 11, at the demonstration in defense of the Muslim community. See post below for details.

Friday, September 3, 2010

My e-reading devolution

I woke up too early today and got into the city an hour before time for work, so I took myself out to breakfast at Veselka. Ssh, don't tell Teresa, who's out of town. Oh hell, she's got nothing to be jealous about--she's in Los Angeles, and after that San Antonio, so she's getting plenty of her own comfort food, the cuisine of her people, there in the Southwest, AKA stolen Mexico, and I know she wouldn't begrudge me treating myself to the food of my people. Well, strictly speaking, not my people so much as the people who tried to wipe out my people ... but much of the food is the same, naturally enough, since the Jews and the Ukrainians (and Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, etc.) lived in close proximity for several centuries until they got rid of us. 

Potato latkes. Borscht. Blintzes. And kasha, especially kasha, oh how I love kasha. It's a deep dive down the nostalgia well for me, I'm aware that it's not merely a matter of taste though I do love the taste. The merest whiff of the aroma of kasha sends me back, way way back to my teeny tiny years, to my Lithuanian Jewish immigrant grandparents' house on Broadstreet in Detroit. Kasha and mothballs, those are the two smells that evoke that house for me. You don't come across the smell of mothballs too often anymore--why is that? is it because all the material of which our clothes are made is treated with such an oh god I'd rather not think about it range of chemicals that no moth would come anywhere near them anymore?--so it's left to kasha alone to remind me of those otherwise nearly lost memories.

Before the plate of kasha and eggs arrived, before I ate breakfast in a buckwheat-bouquet reverie, I had of course been reading a novel. By which I mean I was deeply engaged in a profound experience in single-minded concentration; I was exercising vital areas of my thinking, creative, and imaginative brain; I was building new brain cells in those and other areas; I was, and though this might seem contradictory it's not, resting and refreshing my brain, among other things. Most of which, in any case the complex combination of which, is uniquely achieved by reading a book, especially fiction, is not and cannot be achieved via interaction with electronic devices.
This link is to a recent article about studies showing the dangers, detriments, shortcomings of high-tech multi-tasking--the texting/tweeting/emailing/web surfing/iPod-listening routine. It does not directly address the issue of your brain on e-readers. But the connection seems clear to me, and I have read several other pieces in recent months that are specifically about the difference between reading a physical book and reading text on a Kindle, Sony Reader or other screen device (pieces to which unfortunately I can't find the the links, but surely you trust me that I'm not making this stuff up)--differences not of the "I love the smell of books" variety but rather the crucial issues about depth, thought, learning, memory and so on.

It is becoming more and more clear, it seems to me, that there is a distinguishable difference in the mental processes and the effects on your brain--on you, that is, your self, your mind, the way you think, dream, imagine, understand, grow--that occur and accrue via the two different types of reading. And that the processes and effects experienced with reading old-fashioned books are superior to those that come with e-reading. In other words, we may lose something very precious indeed--the capacity for deep engagement, engagement at those under-levels of consciousness that churn away while we read a book and that, it's beginning to seem if I understand the reports on these various studies correctly, is not available to us when we interact with an electronic screen for reasons that are still not entirely understood--if we abandon physical books entirely.

I'd been leaning the other way for a while. As I wrote here earlier this year, I have no ideological objection to the new reading technologies. Furthermore, I'm sick of lugging heavy books around everywhere, would love to be rid of that burden and exchange it for a single light object that could hold within it many books. The development of e-readers under capitalism is necessarily driven by the search for profit, and so it's going to be a long, slow ride until these devices are available for the masses at affordable prices and with the capacity for borrowing library books instead of being limited to buying books, from pre-selected vendors to boot. All that aside, though, I'd been open to the eventuality.

Now, however, I'm rethinking. Of course, my view will remain tentative until I try out an e-reader for myself, and since nobody I know has one to lend me, it'll be a while till that happens. Who knows, perhaps I'll be surprised. Perhaps I'll find it as deep and rewarding as reading the page made of paper. I've come to doubt it, though. Even to fear it. My mind is challenged enough of late, what with words, names, all sorts of data constantly vanishing into thin air. The last thing I need is one more variable, along with hormone changes and lack of sleep, making me yet more pixilated than I already am.

Plus, I love reading in bed with my lover on a Sunday morning. Let an e-reader come between us? Never!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

"Confirmed bachelor"? Really, in this day & age?

Another movie from a book hits the screen, this one whimsical, and animated to boot. It's My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley, which I read many years ago and loved. I also read and loved Ackerley's novel We Think the World of You. Both are, among other things, gay classics, sad tender tales about love, longing and loneliness in a place and time--mid-20th-century England--where gay sex was very much a crime. So I had to sigh and sputter puh-leaze as I watched the trailer for the movie, released today, as the ridiculous words "confirmed bachelor" set my teeth on edge.

Still, I'd like to see this film.