Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My year's best

As every year, this year's list of the best books I read ranges from new releases back through the previous two centuries. I've read 73 so far, will probably finish one or two more by year's end, not quite up to my record-breaking 80 of last year but they do say there's more to life than reading …

I have no doubt Medical Apartheid will be on 2012's list. However, I'm moving through it quite slowly. This is not a book you can rush.

Anyway. Here's the best of my 2011 reading life. Seventeen fiction, one poetry, one history. In no order.

Cellophane by Marie Arana
The Price of a Child by Lorene Cary
Spartina by John Casey
We the Animals by Justin Torres
Wading Home by Rosalyn Story
Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton
Pym by Mat Johnson
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
So Much Pretty by Cara Hoffman
The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Poetic Injustice by Remi Kanazi

Century of the Wind by Eduardo Galeano

Thursday, December 22, 2011

I'll be buying The Penguin Anthology of 20th-Century American Poetry

I'm not a fan of the New York Review of Books, why would I be? Today, though, I found myself pointed there after hearing that the poetry world has joined a battle prompted by a negative review of a new anthology. Negative, it turns out, is a euphemism. The review, by the venerable Helen Vendler in the NYRB's November 24 issue, heaps scorn on The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry and reviles its editor, Pulitzer Prize winner and former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove—and does so in a breathtakingly blatant racist spew, the latest in the endless chorus of yowls and yelps that issue like clockwork from the we-love-dead-white-men literary establishment whenever and wherever other voices, especially those of people of color, are brought to the fore.

In this, the latest such case, Vendler excoriates Dove for, among others, the crimes of (1) deeming such voices worthy of inclusion in a century's collection; (2) asserting that Black women, in one passage that has Vendler sputtering with oppressor-lackey outrage, "can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race"; (3) noting the social-historical context of the poems; (4) celebrating the Harlem Renaissance. And (5)—this criticism deserves special attention because of its brazen white-supremacist sensibility—Vendler accuses Dove of "tipping the balance" toward poets of color because they, according to Vendler, make up 15 of the 20 born between 1954 and 1971 whose work closes the anthology. "Tipping the balance" against whites, that is. That is, Dove is here indicted for the crime of daring to flip the standard equation. For when have any of these characters ever been outraged by an anthology or section of an anthology in which most of the poets were white? Yeah, right.

Of course there are occasional feeble efforts to couch the crux. To no effect. The thrust is so clear. The cheek of these people, you can almost hear Grande Dame Vendler sniff … why, in my day those people knew their place …

I haven't linked to her scuzz because it's so offensive but you can get to it easily enough. Here is Rita Dove's reply, published as a letter to the editor in the latest, December 22, issue of the NYRB. And here, in an interview with Dove and poet Jericho Brown on the Best American Poetry blog, Dove says in part:
I don't know if this line of attack is a sign of despair or fury on part of some critics who define themselves as white -- whatever that means in our mongrel society. Are they trying to make a last stand against the hordes of up-and-coming poets of different skin complexions and different eye slants? Were we -- African Americans, Native Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans -- only acceptable as long as these critics could stand guard by the door to examine our credentials and let us in one by one?
Toward the end of her review, Helen Vendler reveals much about the skewed thought processes that seem to inform these critics when she writes: "Of the twenty poets born between 1954 and 1971 (closing the anthology), fifteen are from minority communities (Hispanic, Black, Native American, or Asian-American), and five are white (two men, three women).” My husband was in Germany tending to his sick mother when the review came out, so I emailed him a scan. Half an hour later, he emailed me back. "I can't believe Vendler topped off her diatribe with bean counting so offensive, she’s put herself in league with Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan", he wrote. "Has she lost all historical perspective? In juxtaposing 'white' with 'minority communities', counting among the latter everybody who does not adhere to her imaginary Caucasian purity principles, she incriminates herself. Just like the Nazis tagged every German as Jewish who had a Jewish grandparent, just like the Ku Klux Klan and their ilk ascribed to the 'one drop rule', she lumps together everybody who is not 'rassenrein' [racially pure] white, including all those of the 'fifteen from minority communities' who are of mixed racial heritage."

Friday, December 16, 2011

Heroes & martyrs, defiled

I've been reading Harriet A. Washington's searing, infuriating, important book Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. Although you'd think it would be naïve to be shocked by any given piece of information, any new revelation, about the depraved depths this country's racism has reached, I can't come up with any other word but shocking for what Washington presents here. Over years of painstaking research that must have been extremely difficult on many levels, she unearthed indisputable evidence of massive systemic institutionalized crimes against Black people from slavery times right up through today—crimes committed by and in the name of medical science, most of which had been until now either forgotten or deliberately concealed. These crimes are horrific. They range from unethical experimentation to malign neglect to forced medical and surgical treatments to intentional inducement of illness or injury to outright murder to grave robbing and unauthorized post-mortem uses of the stolen cadavers for training and even entertainment.

In reading about this latter issue, how the bodies of deceased people of African descent have been taken without their or their families' consent and used for everything from medical-school education to circus display—and not merely on occasion, no, systematically, such that most U.S. doctors right up through to the present day can assume that these were the bones and tissue they trained on—I came across two particularly devastating instances that filled me with rage.

The first was in 1859. This paragraph comes in a discussion of how bodies were procured for 19th-century medical schools:
Newspaper descriptions of executions regularly noted that as a matter of course, the bodies of black, but not white, criminals were to be dissected. One account read: "The execution of Cook and Coppic, white men, Copeland and Green, colored, took place at Charleston [Virginia] on Friday last. … The bodies of Cook and Coppic were taken to Harper's Ferry in a train which was waiting at the depot. The bodies of the negroes have been given to surgeons and medical students."
Cook and Coppic, Copeland and Green! Even before the reference to Harper's Ferry I recognized the names. For these are four of the heroes of the historic October 1859 raid on the U.S. Army arsenal at Harper's Ferry, planned as the initial attack in what was hoped would swell into a widespread guerrilla war to end slavery and led by the great abolitionist John Brown. Black and white lived, planned, fought and died together—only to have the bodies of the Black heroes desecrated. You can find more details about this despicable final affront here.

Lest anyone think this practice is a thing of the past, Washington's book also reports this, perhaps even more upsetting: In 1998, almost 35 years after 13-year-old Addie Mae Collins was murdered, one of the four little girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., two of her sisters arranged to move her grave to a better-maintained cemetery.
However, workers who opened the grave recoiled in shock: It was empty, devoid of casket and corpse. Addie Mae's body, like so many buried in black cemeteries throughout the South, is missing. No one can know with certainty who took the body or why, but many are convinced that her body joined the untold thousands of anonymous black cadavers on anatomists' tables.
In the book's introduction Washington tells of how she was warned off this project by various powers that be in the medical establishment. She courageously carried on and has made a major contribution to the anti-racist struggle.

Friday, December 2, 2011

On the town

Last week my best friend was in town visiting so I got to take in some culture. Including:

1. Teresa, Rosemary and I saw the play Venus in Fur, written by David Ives and starring the extraordinary Nina Arianda. Amazing. This is one of those rare instances when I agree with all the raves even though they emanate from bourgeois sources. Well, not quite, for I've discovered, since seeing it and upon delving further into the critical commentary, that while the adoration of Arianda is unanimous opinion is more divided on the play itself, and furthermore that there are, it seems, varied interpretations of what it all means, what it's about, most of all what's up with that ending. Hmm. So methinks the bourgeois sources have screwed up here after all. Arianda in all her glory aside, the play itself is, yuk yuk inside joke you'll only get if you've seen it, divine. Brilliant writing that had me on the edge of my seat straining to catch every word only to be whipsawed about this way and that by them up to the very last moment, and that moment is breathtakingly perfect. Hilarious too, as well as discomfiting in a good way.

Playwriting strikes me, every time I get to see a production, as a mysterious art. I always come out wishing I could do it but convinced that I haven't a clue about how to try. Bravo to David Ives and, yes, to the mighty Aphrodite herself, Nina Arianda.

2. Spent an hour or so later that evening at a grand old Village gay dive piano bar with a grand old name, Marie's Crisis Café. Fun, except for our chagrin at the group of young men who seemed to know only tunes from Disney musicals. Egads! This was the first time I've ever been there when I couldn't join in on the singing, for Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein, Sondheim, Bernstein, Gershwin, Porter and all that lot were, sadly, not in the house.

3. I took Rosemary to the Queens Museum for a perambulation around the Panorama of the City of New York. It is a glorious thing. And she permitted me to be in my glory, pointing here and there orienting her, showing off my fabulous town.

4. We went to the Brooklyn Museum, where we were very satisfied with the new exhibit Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. AKA The Gay Show. Really interesting on many levels.

Now my sister- and brother-in-law are in town from Texas and after they come from Radio City Musical Hall where they're seeing the Rockettes do their holiday thing, we're meeting for a sushi dinner at one of the best Japanese restaurants in the city. Phew! Ain't I got fun?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

NYPD versus the people's pages

The more threatened they are, the more baldly their fascistic tendencies are revealed. They being the rich, who control the state everywhere in this awful country but perhaps nowhere more blatantly than here in New York where their head man, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, rules. The latest example? Well, let's head down to the Occupy Wall Street library where this city's police-state forces yesterday did their dirty thing again, and in a most flagrant manner. The valiant librarians having set up their bookshelves again, or at least as many of them as they'd been able to salvage, the NYPD moved in. They set up a line around the books. A line of armed thugs blocking access to books! And then yet again grabbed the books, dumped and trashed them, and hauled them away. It's all reported here.

That oughta motivate you, if motivation you need beyond the facts of life under what my late comrade Dave Axelrod termed crapitalism--racism, unemployment, homelessness--to get out into the streets for today's citywide mobilization by the 99 percent.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


The richest person in New York ordered his thugs to destroy the Occupy Wall Street encampment in the dead of night and so, starting at 1 a.m. today, they did their best to do so. Sweeping through, throwing everything into garbage trucks--that's everything, from clothes and sleeping bags to computers and cell phones to food and medicine--and arresting at least 150 people, the billionaire's brute force did its thing.

Including to the wonderful beloved OWS Library, caught in the process of destruction at left. All the books were tossed and destroyed, as described on the OWS library blog this morning.* That's some 5,000 books. This is what the opposite of democracy looks like.

'I made my own decision,' says the mayor, as if that's some bold brave wise assertion of his political independence. Of course he did--he's the richest person in the city! The richest person in the city rules the biggest city in the country. (And for any who still retained illusions about the role of the police, this ought to sweep away those illusions once and for all. The cops work for the rich.) What the boss says, goes. There's no one richer to boss the top boss around. Yes, here in the world headquarters of finance capital, things are positively feudal.

Yet history does not move backward. This is something the rich and their reactionary cohort never understand.How foolish, then, is billionaire Bloomberg, as the rich always are, if he thinks he's destroyed this burgeoning movement.

Occupiers are re-gathering as I write. Their lawyers are in court seeking an injunction. Supporters are pouring in. And in two days will come the biggest mobilization yet. Hey Bloomberg, you ain't seen nothing yet!

*Update: at least some of the books still exist. The Occupy Wall Street Library blog asks: where are the rest?
And one more update, as of November 16: the rest of it, that is, most of it, several thousand volumes, does appear to have been destroyed, damaged, and/or discarded.

Friday, November 4, 2011

I said I wouldn't ...

... buy an e-reader until I could get one for around $50, and could borrow library books on it, and wouldn't be locked in to one single source for book buying or one single file type. I said I wasn't opposed to these devices on any principled or ideological basis, of course not, but that it pissed me off how they were only available to the moneyed few, of course it did, and also that I had various worries about what using them means for your reader's brain, how they changed the reading experience. None of my concerns has changed but the, ahem, material conditions have, enough, that I'm now on the verge of getting myself one of them thar doohickeys of some persuasion or other.

Price isn't quite down to $50 but e-readers have become considerably cheaper and I need not be quite as hardline about a firm figure for myself because I'm being offered one as a present. It's now easy to take out library books with all the devices. I have not found any report showing evidence of brain changes in reading--that is, just reading, reading a book in a linear concentrated fashion--on an electronic device as long as all you're doing is reading and you've got all the distracting features like hyperlinks turned off so you stick to the page and don't jump around here and there. It's the jumping around, as most of us do when we're in front of a computer screen, that leads to brain changes, new neuronal connections that are all about multitasking and short-term attention, with concomitant loss of neuronal connections that support deep concentration, imagination and creativity. I still have not had the chance to hold one of these contraptions in my hands, except for a minute or two at a store, no chance to sit for some time and read on one--so I still have no idea whether I'll actually like it, get used to it, find the same heaven on an e-ink screen as I have on so many thousands of paper pages over the years. I still find it hard to believe I will. But I've quizzed a number of friends who do have e-readers, all, by the way, my age or older, and they all say that while the device takes some getting used to, once you do the reading experience is indeed as deep, as engaged, as creative and dreamy as it is with a physical book.

So. I'm edging pretty goddamned close. I might even get one of the hybrids that also provide WiFi for newspaper reading and sundry other web portals.

A couple months ago I bought John Sayles' new novel A Moment in the Sun, which has to do with the U.S. war in the Philippines at the turn of the last century. The book, published by McSweeney's, is unbelievably beautiful, just a beautiful physical object, stunningly designed with a sort of old-fashioned swirl of detail, and full of tactile delights as well. But goodness gracious it is gigantic. Physically huge, and it's been sitting on my dresser for these several months staring at me, daring me to even pick it up, let alone try to hold it to read with my tiny hands (have I ever mentioned that here, my bizarrely small hands for which I have to buy toddler-sized gloves so here we are yet another winter approaching during which I'll pine for a pair of grown-up gloves). Lug the Sayles behemoth with me to and from work to read on the subway? Perish the thought! I finally decided to wait till the holiday break, when I'll be off work for about a week. I'll read it then, at home, I figured, which'll at least avoid the lugging-around problem if not the how am I even going to hold this sucker issue. But lately I've realized, hey, I might not finish it during that week. What then? Back to the lugging it on the train problem.

Not if I get me an electronic machine that weighs under a pound and shines the words out at me from a six- or seven-inch screen. I can borrow a library copy onto the magic apparatus and finish the book thus.

Within the next couple weeks I think all the end-of-year new-model announcements will be done. Will I be able to rise out of the mire of indecision about whether I really do want to get one of these machines to own as a reading option, as well as about which one to buy if I do? I might. I really. Finally. Might.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Memorial & cultural tribute to Consuela Lee

She was known as "the musician's musician." This coming Saturday, October 29, musicians, friends, relatives and admirers will gather at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem to pay tribute to Consuela Edmonia Lee. 

Pianist, historian, teacher and tireless advocate of African American culture and education, Ms. Lee died almost two years ago. Since then, a foundation created in her name has been working to document and carry on the work of this peerless jazz musician. The memorial will take the foundation's work to the next level--and bring together an amazing roster of musical talents, her peers, friends and students, who will perform in tribute to her.

I'll be there, and anyone in the New York area, whether you knew this brilliant woman or not, anyone who's looking to learn more about the history of jazz and African American education while at the same time being treated to what is sure to be a thrilling concert, should plan to be there too.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Occupy Writers!

The latest nifty show of support for Occupy Wall Street and the burgeoning worldwide protest movement is a newly formed entity called, ta-da: Occupy Writers. You can see a list of authors who've signed on at the website. The list is long, and growing. It features writers I admire, including Tariq Ali, Dorothy Allison, Samuel R. Delaney, Ursula Le Guin, Marlon James, Maxine Hong Kingston, Ann Patchett, Martha Southgate, Monique Truong, Alice Walker. Almost more interesting are the names I wouldn't have associated with any, let alone any particularly progressive, politics, like Rick Moody, Peter Straub, Francine Prose, Caleb Crain. You get the idea--it's another unmistakable sign that something is stirring when such a range of writers rouses itself (okay, at least enough to sign on to a list on a website) to take a stand in solidarity with a protest against the corporate wrecking ball that's swinging at all of us.

The site features, in addition to the list of names, some actual writing about the occupation by some of these. I couldn't read any of it when I tried because, I believe, the site's getting overloaded, but I'll try again. Hope you will too. And for those of you who've got published books and want to add your name, send an email to with your name and the title of one of your books.

Here's the simple declaration you'll be signing onto:
We, the undersigned writers and all who will join us, support Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy Movement around the world.
As well we all should.

Oh, and for those of you who indulge in this sort of thing, you can follow Occupy Writers on Twitter too.

Friday, October 14, 2011


There's a frustratingly short period—early August to late September, more or less—during which you can get juicy tasty fresh-off-the-vine tomatoes at the farmers' markets that are scattered around New York City. Some are organic; these eat up half your week's food budget. Even the non-organic ones are pretty expensive. All are grown on small farms in New York state, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. If you, like me, yearn all year for a real tomato, you haunt the farmers' markets during those six or eight weeks and fork over the cash to buy as many as you can afford, and then you eat them with everything, or alone, savoring the drip, slurping the seeds, until the tiny window has closed and you begin again your long slog through a year without tomatoes.

Because who the hell wants to eat those horrid red balls that pass themselves off as tomatoes in stores and restaurants? I refuse to buy them at the supermarket. At restaurants I always specify "no tomatoes" with whatever I'm ordering. Whoever I'm with usually asks, oh don't you like tomatoes? My answer is that actually I love tomatoes but what they're going to slice onto my sandwich or quarter into my salad is not a tomato and I cannot abide the look feel or taste of the imposter.

If any of this resonates with you—and one thing I learned from the book I just read is that many people throughout the land share my disgust with the pseudo-tomatoes that agribusiness foists on us—I commend to you Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook. It's subtitled "How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit" and Estabrook does a fine job of laying out the how, along with the when and where.

The why? That's easy: profit. Estabrook doesn't directly call out the capitalist system as the real culprit behind the crimes of the Florida tomato industry. OK, fine, he just sticks to the facts. The facts, though, lead to no other possible conclusion. There can be no clearer case study of capitalism's destructive force than what he offers in this book.

It's not just about the de-tomato-ing of the tomato. In fact, that's the least of it. If it were just that the industry has transformed a glorious food into an insipid faux-food that would be bad but not as awful as what they've actually done. Which is poison great swaths of land in Florida. And water. And air. And people. Everyone who bites into one of these faux-tomatoes is ingesting great gulps of extraordinarily toxic chemicals.

However, the people being poisoned the worst—and that's just one part of the unbelievably nightmarish extremes of mistreatment, oppression and exploitation to which they're subjected by the tomatoland owners—are the workers who toil in the fields in and around Immokalee. To his great credit, Estabrook devotes a large portion of his book to them. The conditions of their lives and work, the hardships they face and the courage they've shown in organizing and fighting back to demand their rights—he lays all this out in a compelling narrative that is must reading for any partisan of the working class struggle. In fact, he dedicates the book to "the men and women who pick the food we eat."
I've followed the efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers for some years now, as have most people who align themselves with the cause of labor. It's good, though, even if you already knew about this fight, to read some of the specific stories Estabrook lays out, and meet some of the specific workers whose tales he tells. It's good, too, to be reminded of just how extreme the situation of the Immokalee tomato workers is.

This extreme: If you have eaten a tomato bought at a U.S. grocery stores in the winter, you have been fed on the product of slave labor.

Read Tomatoland to get your red blood boiling and your red solidarity revved. Then head over here to see what you can do to stand with the workers.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

I don't have a Twitter account ...

... but if I did this is what I'd tweet after having paid money to watch this awful reactionary mess last night:

OMG Tree of Life worst movie ever! Endless boring pretentious backward religio-mystico claptrap!

That's few enough characters, right?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hail the Occupy Wall Street Library!

Check it out: not only does Occupy Wall Street have a library, which is growing, organized and respected by the participants--now the Occupy Wall Street Library has its own blog. Follow OWSL here.

I made another brief visit to the site Saturday evening when a bunch of us headed down there after the first day of the Workers World Party national conference. The place was packed--it seemed to me the protesters' numbers had doubled since the last time I was there three days earlier.

And occupations are springing up in hundreds of other cities. This thing is not going away. How lovely that reading material is being provided for the brave young protesters.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Death of a billionaire

When you're worth $8.3 billion, it's only natural that you get endless gushing tributes in every capitalist media outlet when you die. There is no higher accomplishment in this society than amassing riches. Naturally, then, when a very rich person dies, he's lavished with over-the-top obits. Here's the thing, though. I find it a telling reflection of the dead rich guy's media savvy, and of the overwhelming, ubiquitous grip of bourgeois consciousness, that ordinary people are also getting sucked along into the lachrymosity. Bouquets of flowers laid in tribute at Apple stores all over the globe. Heartfelt tributes posted on media websites and blogs, mournful tweets flowing through cyberspace, and so on. And why? What did Steve Jobs contribute to society that so many people should be convinced that his death is a loss to all of us?

Maybe the extremely few who can afford his company's products feel that his keen marketing sense and his sharp taste in mechanical design improved their lives. Others—many others upon whose relationship to computer and communications technology the Mac and Apple products have had an impact, and that's most of us by now, regardless of which company's hardware and software we use—might likewise believe we owe him a debt of gratitude.

All such ideas are mistaken. All are expressions of that bourgeois consciousness from which it is so hard to break free.

Steve Jobs was no more a hero than was Henry Ford, another industrialist who became rich off the labor of others and is nevertheless to this day presented, to schoolchildren and aspiring entrepreneurs alike, as one of the Great Men of U.S. history. Ford was Great at exploiting workers. So was Jobs. That is axiomatic: you do not become a billionaire any other way. He made his profits off the stolen value created by the people who manufactured his products. Most of them, at this point, are unbelievably low-paid and super-exploited workers laboring in overseas factories for dozens of other companies that are subcontracted to create the various component parts that go into making an iPhone or a Mac, an iPod or iPad.

There's more to the story than this, though, more than Jobs' extraordinary facility for reaping profits off the labor of other people. Not only were his billions stolen money. His Great Ideas were, at worst, stolen (check out how he "invented" the mouse)—but even when not directly ripped off from the actual innovators, anything and everything he came up with was not the result of some private individual aha moment, but rather arose from collaboration with many other people. The New York Times obituary more or less comes out and says this when it points out that his skill wasn't technical or scientific or even mechanical or decorative; rather, he was good at recognizing other people's good ideas, and by recognizing is meant understanding what would make money and pushing others to do the work necessary to get the profits rolling. So okay, give him credit for what he deserves to be remembered for: Steve Jobs was a brilliant marketer, smartest of all at self-promotion as today's outpouring attests.

What he did not do was invent anything, or even come up with a new idea. Rather, he built upon others' inventions and facilitated others' ideas. Then others—tens of thousands of others—created the products to which those inventions and ideas led. And others, millions, bought the products, from the sales of which Jobs became a billionaire while the actual creators, the workers who made the products, got just enough to stay alive another day.

Even if it could be shown that Jobs did actually do something—design a particularly elegant piece of circuitry, say—the fact would remain that he did not do it himself. Some of capitalism's greatest lies are promulgated regarding science and technology, where we are told that the Great Man and the Lighbulb Over the Head are responsible for every advance. It just ain't so. Here's a succinct rejoinder from Clifford D. Conner, author of A People's History of Science:
We all know the history of science that we learned from grade school textbooks: How Galileo used his telescope to show that the earth was not the center of the universe; how Newton divined gravity from the falling apple; how Einstein unlocked the mysteries of time and space with a simple equation. This history is made up of long periods of ignorance and confusion, punctuated once an age by a brilliant thinker who puts it all together. These few tower over the ordinary mass of people, and in the traditional account, it is to them that we owe science in its entirety.

This belief is wrong. A People's History of Science shows how ordinary people participate in creating science and have done so throughout history. It documents how the development of science has affected ordinary people, and how ordinary people perceived that development. It would be wrong to claim that the formulation of quantum theory or the structure of DNA can be credited directly to artisans or peasants, but if modern science is likened to a skyscraper, then those twentieth-century triumphs are the sophisticated filigrees at its pinnacle that are supported by the massive foundation created by the rest of us.
I started reading Conner's book a couple years ago but never finished it. All this to-do about the death of a billionaire makes me want to go back and finish reading it. I know just which bookshelf it's on.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

All day, all week--occupy Wall Street!

Well, that didn't prove to be much of a hiatus. I'm back. I'll be back with book talk soon, as soon as I finish one of the books I'm currently reading, an important exposé of one wing of agribusiness. I couldn't wait till then, however, so I'm reviving Read Red after its brief subsidence to say: Hurray for Occupy Wall Street!

And for the many many other occupations that are springing up around the country.

I haven't gotten to spend much time at the occupation—I'll head there again today after work for the aftermath of the big labor solidarity march—but I've heard and read and seen enough to know that it is a Very Good Thing. Don't let anyone, fake left or unabashed right or phony neutral, tell you otherwise. Yes, the people taking part in this occupation have a range of political ideas, from liberal-reformist to libertarian to anarchist to socialist revolutionary.  So yes, there's no one unified program. Yes, some of them are inconsistent or confused. Yes, their various tactics run the gamut from inspired to not so much. None of this matters. What matters is that a group of young people are in motion in a protest that, whatever its contradictions, focuses on the symbol of the capitalist system of exploitation and oppression. Wall Street. And calls for a reversal of the robbery of the planet's wealth and resources.

It will be good to watch the occupation grow more multinational, although if you've been told it's overwhelmingly white you've been lied to as there are many people of color taking part; their numbers are growing and will continue to grow. It will be good to see its class character turn more proletarian, although if you've been told it's a bunch of privileged middle-class kids you've been lied to as there are many working-class students and unemployed people taking part; their numbers are growing and will continue to grow. It will be good to see the protesters continue claiming their right to take to the streets no matter how violently the NYPD attacks and brutalizes them, as it has several times now, with nearly a thousand arrests on record. It will also be good to watch support expand, as the cops' vicious maneuvers are exposed over and over despite the bourgeois media's best efforts to cover them up, a lá

The Times has been relentless in its campaign to ridicule, demean and belittle the Wall Street protesters. One of my favorite, most bizarre and laughably specious digs, made not only by the Times but by many other bourgeois sources, goes something like this. 'These protesters claim to be against Wall Street companies, against the system that manufactures goods for profit. And yet look at them using these very goods, look at them with their laptops and their smartphones, look at them utilizing the very high-tech goods made by the very companies they target as the enemy. Ha ha aren't these kids silly hypocrites.' Really, New York Times? Really, that's your case? That someone who doesn't like the capitalist mode of production ought not to own or use anything thus manufactured? Which is everything, every item of clothing, every toothbrush, sock, scissors, pen, every low-tech thing along with every high-tech gadget—every thing is a capitalist commodity, so I guess we're all supposed to go wander the streets naked and starving rather than handle any commodity produced by this vile system. You've got it backward, silly bourgeois stooges. We will, as someone you'll be hearing about a lot once said, use your very tools to dig your system's grave.

All of which we'll be talking about a lot this weekend at the Workers World Party national conference. Where I hope to see many participants from the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

On hiatus

It's nearly three weeks since I've posted anything here. And though I've read three books in that time, and have stuff to say about two of them, maybe all three, one of them I even fouled with notes on the pages as I read, something I rarely do--despite all that, despite my best intentions to come here and spout off, it's time to conclude that it's not going to happen. Not now, probably not at all for the next little while at least. I don't have the time or the focus, mostly because I'm writing a lot and there's no reserve brain space left to devote to Read Red. So this is to acknowledge that.

From what I've seen, three years is the standard shelf life for a blog. It may be that this one is fading out naturally. I'm not ready to say this is a final goodbye, though. I may pop back occasionally, Read Red may even come roaring back to full-fledged life. Can't say. We'll see.

As for me as a virtual entity, I'm content to see my online presence shrink. I quit Facebook several months ago and am glad I did. I've never had a Twitter account, having no interest in anyone's 140-character surface skim nor desire to spew my own. Such stories and poems of mine as were published in online lit zines over the years are still there. For honest to goodness interaction, I'm easy enough to find.

This is a good time in my life. In fact, I believe I'm having a second flowering as I swing through the second half of my 50s. For now, blogging isn't part of the bloom. If and when it is again, I'll be back.

Friday, August 26, 2011

While everyone else rushes around buying water & batteries...

... I made a mad dash to three bookstores during my lunch hour. Yes, I have a lot to do over the weekend, including a must-do massive writing session but also many household chores. And yes, when I'm not writing or housekeeping and want to read, I've got the new novel that I just started, and it's highly doubtful I'll finish it over the weekend. And yes, even if I do finish it I've got huge to-read piles from which to pick my next book. And yes, if this hurricane does its worst and we're without power on Sunday, it's unlikely I'll be able to read much anyway as I'm not really a flashlight or candlelight kind of gal.

And yet. I felt compelled. I checked online, found quite cheap copies of three books I've been yearning after, ran here and there, got them. Take that, Irene! You don't scare me--I've got exciting new stuff to read!

P.S. I'll also be buying that water and those batteries on my way home today.

Happy 100th birthday, General Giap!

The great hero General Vo Nguyen Giap, a military genius who helped drive both French and U.S. imperialism out of Vietnam, turned 100 years old yesterday. Happy birthday to him!

The world's workers and oppressed owe Gen. Giap eternal gratitude. As do I personally, in terms of my own puny life. For what he and his comrades did in the 1960s and early 70s played a big role in my coming to political consciousness and turning toward the class struggle as my life's path.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

This is an abomination

Just when I was starting to open my crusty old mind bit by bit to the idea of e-reading, just when I could almost conceive of myself trying to read a book on such a device, comes this

Oh sweet Jesus. See how bad it is, it made me utter a locution like oh sweet Jesus! 

Some bright young moneygrubbers--aka "a startup" in the Times story--are offering e-books that have soundtracks. "Instrumental music or ambient noise." And, "during livelier passages," "the patter of footsteps, a booming gong, a crackling fire or the tick of a grandfather clock."

Shoot me now. Or no, don't bother--these horrid monsters known as "Booktrack" are hell-bent on destroying my imagination, my reader's creativity, my quiet concentration, my fancy and fantasy, without which I'm as good as gone.

I'm not one of those doom-and-gloom "reading is dead" people. But capitalism is sure doing its best to take reading, what it really is, its beautiful ephemeral essence, and destroy it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The cultural front

I'm popping in here mostly with links because I'm in the midst of a writing project that's taking a lot of time and concentration, and will for quite a while to come. So. For now:

I suggest that you head over to author Carleen Brice's always interesting and informative site White Readers Meet Black Authors for this list of upcoming new books by writers of color. I see quite a few that I'm adding to my to-read list.

One book on the list, Martha Southgate's new novel The Taste of Salt, reminded me to post her piece for Entertainment Weekly on The Help. There is a lot of hard-hitting truth-telling commentary on both the book and movie written by African Americans, and I'd encourage readers to seek out and read it. Ms. Southgate's is particularly pithy. Also check out Color Online's post, which includes a link to the first chapter of The Taste of Salt.

Speaking of movies, and turning from the untruthful, inauthentic, reprehensible to several that seem to be more up our alley, author Zetta Elliott recommends two that sound really worth seeing: Gun Hill Road and Attack the Block.

There's also John Sayles' new movie Amigo, which is about U.S. imperialism in the Philippines. If you read the New York Times review, a mix of praise for Sayles' artistry, caution about his politics, and, worryingly, satisfaction with his evenhandedness, you know that this film pulls its punches more than those on our side of the class struggle would wish. Indeed, a Filipina activist friend of mine saw it and judged it "only okay." I'll probably see it once it hits my TV's on-demand system because it's not as if there's a glut of films about the U.S. invasion and occupation of the Philippines--I'd bet most people in this country don't even know it ever happened--but of course the best source for information about this history, whether served up via fiction or nonfiction, is Filipino writers and artists. I've read several novels by Filipinos this year. I'm going to see what Filipino films I can find.

Finally, there's this. The most gag-o-rific new book on the market, winning prominent reviews throughout the bourgeois media, is the horrifyingly yet aptly titled Class Warfare, subtitled Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools by the reactionary enemy of public education Steven Brill. Pun aside, this is indeed class warfare, but Brill and his admirers aren't the least bit honest about which class they represent and which they're waging war on. They pretend they care about the public schools. Nonsense. They care about the huge flow of private profit that would begin to flow (that is already flowing to charter-school outfits) if they could only crush the teachers' unions and end government funding of public education entirely. Plow through the front-page piece by Sara Mosle in today's New York Times Book Review, all three pages of it if you can stomach it. You'll search in vain for any mention of the real, the primary cause of so-called failed schools (in itself a completely dishonest and untrustworthy category, when failure is defined as it everywhere now is by the anti-public-school, anti-teachers'-union forces in power from the Education Department on down)--that is, you won't find any reference to funding and finances. Not until nearly the end of this review, and even then the only mention goes to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and to the disgusting federal "Race to the Top" that dangled financial reward to school districts that dismantle even the pretense of a system of equal education. Yet for any honest analyst, there can be no mystery. The scandal, the crime--indeed, The Shame of the Nation as the exemplary writer and equal-education advocate Jonathan Kozol titled his last book, which you've really got to read if you haven't already, but first read this recent interview with him--is quite simple. It's all about funding. Schools that serve a population that's poor, working-class, people of color, any or all of these, are under-funded. Drastically, outrageously, we're talking about no textbooks, no chalk, no chairs, no working toilets and worse. Schools that serve a population that's more prosperous and more white have way way more money to work with, and it shows. It's like the emperor's new clothes the way these commentators, these education "reformers" (read destroyers), harumph around analyzing why oh why this high school in, say, the South Bronx can't seem to send a better percentage of its graduates to college or even graduate a better percentage of its kids vs. why oh why this sparkly pretty clean high-tech-equipped high school in, say, Greenwich, Connecticut manages to graduate almost all its students and send them off to college, good colleges, too. Duh. What a difficult conundrum. Right.

OK, now that I've demoralized us all, let's try to pull ourselves back up with this: the new movie Precious Knowledge, which just played at the New York Latino Film Festival and will show on PBS next spring. It's about the struggle to create, and now to defend, ethnic studies classes in Tucson, Arizona. With young people and educators like those shown in this film leading the way, I feel sure that the fight to save our schools, while tough, will be won.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Lonely Hunter

Last weekend I finished reading Virginia Spencer Carr's 1972 biography of Carson McCullers, The Lonely Hunter. My understanding is that this is still considered the definitive McCullers study. I have no reason to challenge that, as all I knew about McCullers before reading this book was what I concluded about her sublime artistry after reading The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter earlier this year. Yet I can't say that I come away from The Lonely Hunter feeling that I have much new insight into McCullers as a person or artist.

No, that's too harsh. I do, of course, is some ways. I now know her life story, I understand something of how she approached writing, I have perhaps some slight sense of what it must have been like to be in a room with her. As in, she sucked all the air out of it. In a good way! Or not. See, if I come away with anything it's an appreciation for the largeness of McCullers' personality and the complexity of her character. I don't know that she had many dimensions but she certainly had more than the usual complement of contradictions.

Frustratingly, so does Carr's book. She straddles every possible fence. Page by page, paragraph by paragraph, sometimes sentence by sentence and sometimes even within sentences, Carr offers up so many clashing descriptions, analyses and judgments, her own and those of the many people she interviewed about McCullers, that the reader's head swirls not knowing which lead to follow, whose word to believe. McCullers was a prodigious drinker--she never really did anything but sip--she slurred her words--she was never really drunk. She suffered paralysis from a series of strokes--she faked paralysis for sympathy--it was real but psychosomatic. The portrait, overall, is deeply sympathetic which is fine, but it felt as if Carr at the same time tried terribly hard to maintain an evenhanded approach, as a result sometimes abdicating the biographer's responsibility to draw some conclusions.

Above all this applies to the question of McCullers', and to a lesser extent her husband's, sexual orientation. It's striking how quaintly, which is to say homophobically, discreet and judicious is Carr's handling of this issue throughout the book. It's a reminder of how little had yet changed even three years after the Stonewall rebellion that gave rise to the modern LGBT movement, when this book was published. On the one hand, she does not entirely shy away from the topic--how could she when everyone knows that McCullers had great female loves and her husband great male loves--and she even in some ways writes of this sympathetically. On the other hand, she was mired in all the old attitudes, and uses ugly old terminology like the word "invert" which I didn't realize anyone was still using in 1972. Most frustratingly, there are great swaths of the book given over to indirection--what no doubt was seen as discretion--when it comes to many of McCullers' relationships. She's passionately in love with a Swiss woman but it's all conveyed at such a remove that I couldn't see through the gauze to figure out what they really were to each other. Decades later she seems to be inseparably paired with a psychiatrist who's her therapist/friend/companion--huh? You may ask why any of this matters. Well, for a million obvious reasons. Even if one thinks, wrongly, her sex or love life irrelevant to her art, this is a big full biography, not merely a study of her as a writer, and the weird wobbly way that Carr at once addresses and shies away from the whole issue of who and how McCullers loved is very frustrating.

Then there's this. By all accounts, as related in Carr's book, Carson McCullers drank enormous amounts of alcohol pretty much constantly, and smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, starting when she was a teenager and on throughout the rest of her life. I found Carr's frequent attempts to discount the effects of all this substance use bizarre. More than once she asserts that McCullers was not an alcoholic. I'm no expert, but I don't know another word for someone who starts drinking in the morning and never stops, and does so every single day. For Carr to claim, as she does several times, that all this drinking had little to no effect on McCullers' behavior or, more interestingly, her creativity and creative output, strikes me as absurd. What's really incomprehensible is the biographer's failure to link the drinking and smoking to McCullers' continually precarious health. At the least, the writer must have destroyed her liver. Her heart, lungs and circulatory system had to be in awful shape too. Which leads to the other odd gap, Carr's strangely disingenuous and quite muddled reporting about McCullers' ongoing and increasingly complicated and debilitating medical ailments throughout her adult life. McCullers had her first stroke in her 20s, by which time she'd been smoking and drinking nearly a decade, and by the time she died of the final stroke at 50 she'd had several more in between, along with breast cancer, disabling pain and paralysis, and other serious illnesses. Carr never ever connects the writer's smoking to her health problems, nor does it seem anyone in her circle ever did or ever appealed to her to clean up her act. It's not as if the ramifications of all that drinking and smoking were unknown during her lifetime. They would certainly have been known, in 1972, to Carr.

Leaving aside this odd reticence from a fuller treatment of McCullers' lifestyle as related to her physical health, I was intrigued by the whole question of how she created what she created under the influence as she most assuredly always was. I've always discounted all the silly saws about writers and drinking, I've always thought that being drunk or high cannot ever really feed creative work and must always in the end impede it. I myself (not of course that I'm comparing myself to great writers like McCullers, just relating my own experience) could never write after drinking even a little. I must have a clear mind to come up with the words. I must be alert, as fully lucid as possible. In contrast, if Carr's portrayal is to be believed, McCullers felt herself too restricted, somehow, felt her mind too tightly bounded, to be able to enter the creative dream state necessary to write fiction when she was in full control of her faculties. She felt that only by drinking alcohol could she relax, loosen up, and open the portals to the half-trance state that fiction writers must enter. Fascinating. If true.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Just married

Well, we went and did it: yesterday Teresa and I, after almost 23 years together, got married at the New York City Clerk's Marriage Bureau in lower Manhattan. It was a fun and interesting experience being there with all the working-class folks, opposite-sex and same-sex couples alike, who opt to wed this way for various reasons personal, political, and mostly, I'm guessing, financial. When we'd picked up the marriage license the day before Teresa and I had both gotten weepy, especially as we watched several gay couples come out of the chapel (yeah, that's what they call the little room where they perform the ceremony) and pose for their newlywed pictures. It's not about aping the hets, it's not about endorsing the patriarchy, it's about claiming a legal right that had been denied; the sheer fact of this achievement hit home as we watched these couples celebrate and we got all shook up. (My thoughts on this immediately after the law passed are here; my article in Workers World newspaper the week after is here.)  After that I was terrified that I'd bawl all during our ceremony but happily it turned out instead that we both smiled, in fact started laughing, as we said our I Do's and exchanged rings.

Then we posed for lots of pictures with, and taken by, our dear friends Monica and LeiLani who'd accompanied us and signed the marriage license as our official witnesses. 


Headed uptown to Sheridan Square, where we posed at the Gay Liberation Monument by sculptor George Segal.

Crossed the street and took a picture in front of the Stonewall Inn, where the modern LGBT movement began with the great rebellion of June 1969. 

Headed inside the Stonewall for a celebratory drink and toast to the struggle. Strolled down Seventh Avenue to the Pink Teacup, a soulfood restaurant and one of my all-time favorites for all those years it was a tiny jam-packed hole in the wall and now even more wonderful since it relocated to much bigger digs. There we met a few more friends for dinner, delish and delightful. A grand time was had by all.

Today's the honeymoon: we're going to a movie! Then it's back to real life. Tomorrow, a poitical meeting; Sunday paying bills and doing laundry; Monday wage work. Yesterday, though, yesterday was a keeper.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

That was the month that was

The last three weeks of July were eventful, and also not, both of which account for my almost total absence from the blogosphere. I was on vacation as scheduled, the first half visiting my best friend in the California desert, having a wonderful time, the second half back home which was not so great. I got back just in time for NYC's annual horrible 100-degree-plus heat wave, which coincided with the only four days Teresa was able to take off to vacate with me. We'd had lots of lovely stuff planned--the High Line, Governor's Island, Bear Mountain, Coney Island--but since it was impossible to be outside and since we couldn't find a decent movie at which to cool off, we ended up imprisoned in our bedroom, the only room in our apartment with air conditioning, for most of our precious few days together. Also in the midst of that there was a death in my family, and while my feelings about this were not standard they did require attending to, so the sticky heat took on an added layer of sad musing memory processing, a sort of strange solitary version of sitting shiva if you like, as well as an added week off which I'm now amid, this first week of August.

I've been reading throughout, of course. Not as many books as I usually race through on my summer vacation, which is partly because of what else I was doing and partly because I've been moving through a very fat book very slowly for almost two weeks now. That one is The Lonely Hunter, Virginia Spencer Carr's 1972 biography of Carson McCullers. I'll probably post some thoughts about it once I've finished. Of the four other books I read, here are quick comments on two.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Published in 2001, this is a novel I'd steered clear of for what proved faulty reasons. I'd been given it as a gift some years back, and read the first five or 10 pages but decided not to read on, as I was turned off by the use of the word "terrorist" to describe the guerrillas who burst in upon and take hostage the attendees at a fancy-shmancy private opera recital at the vice president's mansion in an unnamed country that is clearly supposed to be Peru during the time of the Fujimori presidency and the armed struggles led by theTupac Amaru and Shining Path revolutionary groups. I never thought of picking Patchett's novel up again until a couple years ago when a comrade of mine, a communist revolutionary through and through, asked me if I'd read it and, when I told her I hadn't and why, said that I'd made a mistake and should read it. She said this novel, far from painting a one-dimensional hostile portrait of the hostage-taker characters, provides a deeply compassionate, deeply sympathetic portrayal of the rebels in all their humanity. She was right. I was swept into and very moved by the story, and found Patchett's writing lovely. Delicate and deep. I'm glad I finally got back to this one.

I also read Four Fish: the Future of the Last Wild Food by Paul Greenberg, which I'd had on my to-read list for a while and impulsively bought at an airport bookstore. It was a fast read, and mildly interesting, but that's about the best I can say. Overfishing along with industrial development and environmental despoilage are leading/have led to catastrophic destruction in the world's rivers and seas, driving some key species to the brink of extinction and in the process destroying livelihoods and communities while, most important of all, depriving the world's tables of vitally important, formerly abundant and sometimes cheap foods. OK, well, I knew this already, but I'm glad I read up on the history of how all this happened and the particulars of the current situation. The four fish of the title, by the way, are salmon, tuna, bass and cod. The problem is that Greenberg either hasn't the foggiest notion of or is unwilling to take on the real culprit--capitalism, and in particular late-stage high-tech imperial-age capitalism--and therefore the solutions he offers up amount to mild, silly nostrums. In the course of which he--like Michael Pollan in his writings and all the other well-meaning but fundamentally helpless, unhelpful liberal-bourgeois commentators on current food issues and agribusiness--throws around terms like artisanal and sustainable and argues for small-scale settings and high-priced commodities as the way forward. Neither of which,  a small scale of production or a high price of sale, is any solution at all for the great mass of billions of poor and working people. The only viable solution in the long run, and as it fast approaches the short run too, is an internationally coordinated effort to restore and revive the world's fisheries, manage fishing so as to conserve and protect the fish while also providing healthy non-toxic fish for the masses to eat, etc. etc. -- the very idea of which is inconceivable under capitalism, when the sole driving force is the quest for profit. Any analyst who can't or won't address this has little to offer.

I can't close without also noting an aspect of Greenberg's book that infuriated and disgusted me: his use of the word "man" to mean people or humankind. Really? Aaarggh!#$%! I've complained before about other writers who persist in using this absurd, insulting sexist language--and here we are, well into the 21st century, and they can't stop. Assholes! The word "fisherman" is lame enough--the word is "fisher," and any man who refuses to use it for any reason is a simple sexist as well as a simpleton--but much much worse is the repeated, relentless reference to our species as "man." I make allowances when I encounter this usage in older works--reluctantly, but I do. In a current book of popular science? No excuse. So offensive.