Friday, April 29, 2011

Morals, Marx & May Day

As often seems to happen after I read a good book, I've had an unsettled period, a couple weeks of neither-here-nor-thereness reading-wise. I've pulled out of it and am now engrossed in a fine novel. First, however, I spent the better part of a week trying to get through a book—and I did try! I violated my own rule about how many pages to give a book before giving up on it, gave it well over 100 pages before crying uncle!—that had sounded like it might be a fun and interesting follow-up to The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. I responded to a publicist's promotion and received a free review copy of The Moral Lives of Animals by Dale Peterson. I'm thinking I should stop doing this—not that I have that often, two or three times now, but each time the book's been a disappointment that I've forced myself to stick with much longer than I would have had it not been a review copy, plus I feel obliged to blog about it where I'd otherwise have probably kept silent as I do about many books I read or try to read.

Well then. While I read Bruno Littlemore as primarily a commentary on human society, the novelist did also fold into the story some provocative ideas about animal (or at least chimpanzee) consciousness, mentation, and, yes, morality. So I hoped that with The Moral Lives of Animals I'd get a chance to pick up and run with some of these ideas. Didn't happen. The book's a dud. In several ways. You know how you'll sometimes read a magazine article that makes a cogent point or two about a particular issue, and then a year or two later you'll see that the writer has expanded the article into a book, and you'll read the book and think, jeez, she/he should have left it an article? Peterson's book feels like one of those—a good idea for an article-length piece, destroyed by expansion into a tedious book—only, oops, as far as I can tell it never was an article. So it's a book that should have only been an article. I could recap Peterson's main points in a paragraph or so, or, in conversation, in a minute or two, and then back up his points with some of the buttressing evidence in another few paragraphs or, in conversation, another five or 10 minutes. You know: we human beings are not unique; we are animals too; we share most or all of our physiological and psychological characteristics with other mammals; there is wide and deep evidence of moral behavior among other mammals; and of emotion; and of social cooperation; these characteristics and behaviors developed over millions of years because they have evolutionary value; and so on. There just doesn't seem to be anything new or any particular contribution here.

Over the last several years there's been a slight but steady stream of news reports about scientific studies providing evidence that unselfishness or altruism or kindness or cooperation, some quality along this spectrum, is an essential human trait, constructed by evolution and proven by way of animal-behavior studies. These reports naturally intrigue and encourage me; they're the sort of thing I'd hoped to find in this book. Some of this is in here, but there's so much bloat, obfuscation, repetition and dross that it's obscured. Bummer. This is my second unsuccessful try at such a read. My last was one of Frans de Waal's books, which I had to give up on very early because I got pissed off at a gratuitous anti-Soviet comment right near the beginning. If you feel compelled to insert an attack against the first group of people who tried to build a socialist society at the very beginning of a book that is purportedly about the evolutionary benefits of empathy and cooperation, I don't feel compelled to keep reading your words.

Which reminds me to note that most of these books, Peterson's and de Waal's definitely among them, even as they assert what seem to be mildly progressive points, are thoroughly grounded in bourgeois consciousness and imbued with bourgeois ideology. This is important to remember especially with reference to evolutionary biology, a field upon which these writers heavily rely and that's rife with not only potential for reactionary use and abuse but much actual reactionary use and abuse. There is a whole wing of evolutionary biology, arguably its biggest, dominant wing, that's devoted to "proving" all sorts of sexist, even misogynist, theses. This is the sort of "science" that lets an asshole like Lawrence Summers assert, as he did in a 2005 speech as president of Harvard University, that the female of the species is underrepresented in science and engineering because of a "different availability of aptitude at the high end." In other words, um, women are stupid—and, hey, there are studies of chimpanzee behavior that prove it. So. Any and every bourgeois-liberal book of social science heavily based on the work of evolutionary biologists must be approached with this in mind.

When it comes to morality, there is in fact a human-specific angle that none of these writers appreciates or acknowledges. I speak of course of class. Morality is a vague and amorphous enough concept, but it becomes even less meaningful in a consideration devoid of class analysis. For a Marxist, there is no broad blanket moral code shared among everyone, worker and owner alike. How could there be, when our interests are so thoroughly opposed? Thinking about these issues, this morning as I was getting ready for work I pulled from our bookshelves my old, well-worn copy of Their Morals and Ours by Leon Trotsky. It's got to be 30 years or more since I read this collection. Seems like a good moment to give it another going-over.

While I was at the shelves, I noted a book on Teresa's to-read pile and may ask her if I can have a go at it now. Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature by John Bellamy Foster. Title, topic and glowing blurbs aside, I have no idea what this one really is. I know what I wish it to be: that rare bird, an honest-to-goodness non-revisionist not-anti-communist Marxist work on questions of science and society. Whether it delivers, we shall see.

All this talk of morals and society leads me to a moral imperative. And that is to march this Sunday, May 1, May Day, for worker and immigrant rights. There are actions in cities around the country. Find yours and stand with our sisters and brothers to fight back against all the attacks on our rights, and especially in solidarity with immigrants who are being deported in record numbers by the Obama administration. Here in New York, meet up at noon at Union Square, where we'll rally before marching to Foley Square to join up with other groups for a mass demonstration of worker unity. Here's a bit of the May Day press conference this past Tuesday at New York City Hall. (That's my lover Teresa Gutierrez of the May 1st Coalition for Worker and Immigrant Rights in the yellow jacket.)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

What hole have I been hiding in?

OK, yes, I've been dealing with some minor but pesky health issues and yes, menopause has destroyed my sleep which in turn makes it a huge effort to do, well, almost anything beyond dragging myself to work every day, and yes, I've been trying to get some writing done...the result of all of which is that I haven't been following literary news very closely, or pushing myself to get to literary events, which is mostly fine but not entirely. Nothing excuses how out of touch I've become with developments in LGBT fiction. Never fear: I'm on it! I'm going to do my best to get to the May 12 reading at Bluestockings bookstore by some of this year's Lambda Literary Award finalists. (Here's a list of all the readings in various cities.)

And I'm all over this. The Lambda Literary Foundation just awarded its Mid-Career Novelist Prize to Susan Stinson and Alex Sanchez. Neither of whose work--oh the shame, the shame--I have read. An omission I am correcting as we speak. I've actually already had some of Sanchez's books on my to-read list, especially since last autumn's spate of LGBT youth suicides drew my attention to Young Adult books for our precious queer kids. I read some, but not yet his, and this award reminds me to get to that soon.

And Susan Stinson--what fucking hole have I been hiding in not to have known of or read her work? Sure, you never know whether you're going to like a book, and absolutely, I have been misled many times by glowing blurbs and even awards. But I've just spent some time on her website and I gotta tell you (and don't tell Teresa), I think I'm in love. Based on her own characterizations of her work and what she explores in it, and the lauds of some pretty impressive others. And based on the short piece, "Drink," featured on her homepage. Hot damn! It's dazzling! Her latest novel, Venus of Chalk, just took a top spot on my to-read list.

I was one of the fellows at the first annual Lambda LGBT Writers' Retreat in Los Angeles four summers ago, and I tried for a while to stay in the loop. Obviously, my efforts lagged. With limited time and energy, it's usually write or hang with writers and writing has to take priority. Still, as I've been thinking about lately since this spring's round of rejections dashed my hopes for an arts colony residency in July, while writing is a solitary business it's not good to be too isolated. There's a certain stimulation, a certain quickening of the blood and loosening up of new ideas, that happens, or can, in the company of writers, at least interesting, exciting, progressive writers. LGBT writers exploring some of the same terrain I'm trying to. So, to Alex Sanchez and Susan Stinson: congratulations, looking forward to reading your work, and thanks for spurring me to get back out into the world a bit.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Hazel Dickens has left the picket line

Hazel Dickens, one of the great musical artists of the U.S. working class, died yesterday. She was 75. Sister Dickens sang well and long and loud on behalf of the workers and poor, especially the miners and mining families of Appalachia. For anyone who's ever mined or known miners and miners' families, which includes those of us like me who've never been near a mine but have done strike solidarity work over the years, hers is the voice of the class struggle in mine country. And will always be. Here's a clip of Hazel Dickens singing at a 1989 benefit for the Pittston strike. I suggest you watch the whole thing.

There are many other good YouTube videos, but really, just go buy some of her CDs. And to see her sing a fuller version of "Which Side Are You On?" to another group of strikers, watch Barbara Koppel's great documentary Harlan County USA. (Correction: Hazel Dickens sings "Black Lung" in the movie. Florence Reece sings her song "Which Side Are You On?" Even more reason to watch this great 1976 film.)

Hazel Dickens presente!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Viva PalFest!

The third annual Palestine Festival of Literature is under way and is by all reports a great success. 
Every year the occupying Israeli state does its best to disrupt this gathering of writers and poets from Palestine and around the world, and every year the festival participants persevere and come together for what looks like an amazing few days of working, thinking, talking together. (Every year I wish I was there too, but that's another story.) Among this year's participants: Alice Walker, seen here at a workshop.
Photo from PalFest
I'm going to copy the list of writers at the festival, many of whose names I must confess I don't know, and try to read some of their work. Here's a taste from Day Two. Viva PalFest! Viva Palestina!

Monday, April 18, 2011

On the political arts front

Coming up in July in the Philippines: an international conference of progressive culture. The theme is "cultural work as an integral part of the struggle of the peoples of the world against imperialism."

The initiators describe themselves as "artists/cultural workers who are active within the International League of People's Struggle, an international formation of more than 200 organizations from more than 40 countries promoting, supporting and developing the struggles of the peoples of the world." In their invitation they explain:
As artists ourselves, we have come to understand the importance of the role of art in the progressive movement and want to promote its value far beyond simple entertainment. We aim to examine and develop the ways in which art and culture are an integral and indispensable part of the revolution we all desire. This conference will be a unique opportunity for creative people from around the world to come together, share their work, and discuss the role of art in the struggle for fundamental social change.
Sounds like heaven! Spread the word.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore

I just read a great novel: The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale. Hot damn, this is one juicy read, packed with extravagant language, exuberant ideas, an outlandishly wild and wonderful plot and, unlikely as this is, deep emotion. As they say: I laughed, I cried. And thought, and am thinking still. This one will stay with me for a while.

You know how much I hate to agree with the powers that be when they grant this book or that their imprimatur, and that goes quadruple when the author is yet another young white man with an Iowa MFA. Grr. Bah! Usually I can tell by just such raves, combined with what I infer about the book's story, slant, theme, and so on, that there's no there there for the likes of me. This time, though, despite this novel's provenance smack-dab dead-center snuggled in the literary establishment's slimy embrace, my interest was sufficiently piqued that I was willing to check it out.

Wow am I glad I did. I just spent one rapturous reading week burrowed deep into a bildungsroman whose hero and narrator is a chimpanzee. A talking, walking, reading, thinking, writing—well, dictating, for his hands are ill-suited for pen and paper and he's not a very good typist, so he speaks these, his memoirs, to a young college student amanuensis—chimpanzee whose travels and travails take him deep into the heart of starkness, the perverse unnatural void that humanity, the ape that would be king, has made of itself and threatens to make of the world.

Though I don't want to overstate it and portray this as a political novel exactly, let alone one that explicitly aligns itself with our side of the class divide, there is much worth chewing on here. Bruno's tale—which entails both the extremely eventful, boisterous, rollicking narrative of his exploits and his exploitation, and his book-long lifelong reflection on our animal selves, individual and group relations, love, commerce—is packed with social commentary. Along with his own woeful yet fleetingly joyous story, in the course of 576 fast-flying pages dear Mr. Littlemore offers abundant thoughts and observations about a range of aspects of human society, from television to education to sex to politics to many apposite zingers about this debased, commodified culture. Mordant, hilarious, sad, sharp, and rife with allusions literary, historical, zoological, linguistic and more, these musings are the heart of the book.

I took The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore out of the library. If I owned it (and I'd almost say it's worth the expense just for the section on the Gnome Chompy), I'd start lending it around. Or maybe not since I like to keep my favored books nearby to gaze at and fondle. Whatever way you get your hands on it, do try to. I haven't steered you wrong yet, have I?

Monday, April 11, 2011

A call for pro-worker writing

I don't usually do this, in fact I don't know whether I ever have before, but today I'm posting a call for submissions from a literary journal. It's a journal I like, partly because they've published my work, but that's the least of the reasons it makes me happy that this comes from the cream city review. This journal is based in Milwaukee, at the University of Wisconsin campus there--in other words, ground zero for the attacks on public employees and union rights. It's a great thing to see a literary publication taking a stand.

Check it out:

cream city review is pleased to announce a special section for our upcoming Spring 2011 issue: “Dispatches from the Front: Labor and the Fight For Worker’s Rights”

Do you have a recent, related experience that you would like to share with the world, whether protesting at the Capital in Madison or working in your community to support the rights of workers? We are seeking submissions of personal narrative, poetry, art, even fiction, that seeks to document the ongoing protest over the dissolution of workers' rights in Wisconsin.

Ideally, we are looking for local Wisconsin voices that represent a wide range of communities and identities, but will also consider work from those in solidarity from around the world. We also welcome voices of protest from communities impacted by other recent policy enactment in Madison (cuts in health care, education, etc…). Preference will be given to voices that have fewer resources for having their voice in print; cream city review will also seek to juxtapose those voices with work from published writers/journalists that offer a personal perspective on their experience.

We invite writers and artists to submit their work via our online submission manager at
Please select the appropriate genre for your work, i.e. “Labor poetry” or “Labor visual art,”etc. Submissions selected for this special section will be published in or around May/June 2011. Deadline for submissions is May 1, 2011.

Founded in 1975, cream city review is a biannual literary journal, edited and published by graduate students at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee. We receive support from the Graduate Program in Creative Writing, private donations, and a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board. The journal is distributed nationally and internationally by Ingram Periodicals and can be found in independent and chain booksellers in the United States and Canada. More information can be found at

Photo courtesy of Workers World

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Studying the clouds

As I believe I've mentioned from time to time, I'm not exactly a live-in-the-moment kind of gal. More of a dread-the-next-moment type. My catalogue of worries, personal and political, is endless, expectation of doom, personal and political, certain. In this I am a terrible communist indeed, and it's a constant struggle to push down my innate pessimism. In my own defense let me say that I do make this effort earnestly, I do foment revolutionary optimism in my own psyche daily, so I hope I get some credit for that. Then too, there's this contradiction: I am also an inveterate fantasist, a daydreamer. In the midst of everything else, I'm quite capable of stopping to, if not smell the roses, confabulate imaginary flowers. For my feverish little brain is always concocting all sorts of story lines, for me, my family, my comrades, my class, the struggle, the planet--story lines that are, come to think of it, fully imbued with hope. Perhaps, then, the pessimism is merely the surface layer. Perhaps my daydreaminess reveals a fundament of optimism after all.

These musings are occasioned by the book I've just started: The Cloud Collector's Handbook by Gavin Pretor-Pinney. This is a delightful little volume of education and enlightenment about, yes, clouds, in all their beauteous variety. Its purpose, like that of the Cloud Appreciation Society, which Pretor-Pinney founded, is to get us to look up. To stop, stand still, look up and marvel. The photographs are stunning, the pages are informative, and the writing is delightfully droll. I think I'm going to have a ball with this one, and I just might take up the challenge and begin keeping a record of cloud sightings.

"Cloudgazing," the author notes, "is the preferred pastime of daydreamers, wonderers, and poetic souls the world over." If I've just outed myself as among this company, so be it. I think cloudgazing, like its cousin stargazing, like birdwatching or flower appreciation (hey, I think the orchid show is coming soon!) is a wholly defensible activity for a revolutionary socialist. It's restorative. It lightens the load and bolsters resolve, or at least that's how it works for me. There's this, too: the clouds belong to everyone. They're one realm the greedy bosses are incapable of appropriating for their own profit. When I look up and appreciate their snowy formations, I know that my sisters and brothers around the world, all the billions of oppressed and exploited masses, can do the same. We share the cloud-filled skies, as one day we'll share the earthly world's riches.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

A life of tender rue

My best friend is a schoolteacher and a big reader like me and we talk about books a lot. She recently read and recommended Ms. Hempel Chronicles by Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum. She didn't rave. She was in fact rather restrained. But she said that the main character is a teacher and that as a teacher she'd found it very well done. Since she knows that my mother was a schoolteacher too and that between the two of them, my mom and my friend, I've been deep in the lives of teachers my whole life and know something about the shape of those lives, she thought I too might enjoy this book.

I more than enjoyed it. It's divine. After reading it, I called my friend and told her I'd loved it and asked why she'd been so subdued in her recommendation. She said that she'd been unsure whether someone who's not herself a schoolteacher could appreciate the exquisite job Shun-Lien Bynum does. How well and truly she depicts the dailyness of a teacher's life. Which is exactly what this talented young writer achieves. But what I found more miraculous is how she evokes a teacher's consciousness as she moves through her life, during and outside the school day. For teaching, I think, more than any other job, defines, consumes, is the worker. I work as a secretary but a secretary is not who I am. A teacher is who my friend is, and who my mother was, awake and asleep, winter and summer, teaching or sleeping or grocery shopping. This teacher-ness is conveyed beautifully in the linked stories that make up Ms. Hempel Chronicles.

As a communist reader, I often lament the dearth of books that focus on characters at work, that is, characters as workers. For most of us spend most of our waking hours at work. Work takes up the biggest chunk of our lives. Why don't more books delve into this? Yeah yeah we all know why; see almost every post on this blog ranting against bourgeois culture. Here we have a fine counter to my lament. I don't know whether the author herself would see it this way--that this is a book about a worker, in some sense the ur-worker in terms of how much of the worker's life is spent at work, for teachers spend more hours per day and per week working than any other worker I know of, this is one of the secrets that only teachers and those who share their lives know, the long long day at school and then the nightly and weekendlong work grading papers,  writing report cards and so on--but to me this is a big part of Shun-Lien Bynum's accomplishment. This portrayal of what life is like for the workers known as teachers. (Note to the governors of Wisconsin, Ohio, New York, California, the billionaire mayor of New York, and every other politician currently trying to whip up public opinion against teachers so they can keep paying the banks our billions of dollars in tax money instead of a living wage to these most important workers: fuck you, you scum of the earth pigs from hell who've never done a real day's work in your lives!) 

It's not only the work itself that comes through in these pages. It's the joy, the pain, the tender rue, unique to the teacher's life I believe. One thread throughout these Chronicles is Ms. Hempel's chronic sense of underachievement, her feeling that she's somehow missed the main event of her own life and is doomed instead to forever usher others forth toward theirs. This is the teacher's own version of that horrid vicious anti-worker sexist old saw, "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." There's no truth to that nasty saying, the inverse is in fact true, that teaching is a special talent, a calling, even, that very few have or can ever hope to master. Still, I think (based on my second-hand experience of two teachers' lives) that many teachers, even (as in the case of my friend and my mom) superbly gifted and universally beloved teachers, wrestle with this demon in their own psychic life, a nagging gnawing refrain of what-ifs, what if I'd gone to medical school instead of teaching junior-high science, what if I'd written that novel instead of teaching high-school English, what if I'd become a cartographer instead of teaching fifth-grade geography, a mathematician instead of teaching fractions to third graders. Ms. Hempel Chronicles reminds me in some ways of the superb Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. The two books both have a schoolteacher main character. They share a linked-stories structure. But where Strout's book was full of ragged painful rage and regret, in Beatrice Hempel we have a more subtle gentle thread running through the pages, the bittersweet love-hate relationship teachers have with their work, their lives.

Which leads me, finally, to my ambivalence about this book's end. (Spoiler alert: stop here if you'd rather read the stories without knowing their destination.) I was saddened, and initially disappointed, to discover in the last piece that Ms. Hempel had left teaching. Oh no, oh damn, I thought. Why not let her work her life away at this hardest, most frustrating and most rewarding of all jobs? Like my mother did, like my best friend is doing as she counts down toward retirement, like so many do, for so little recompense monetary or otherwise, for the love of it when you come down to it, trite though that sounds. I felt let down. Betrayed, even, although that's probably putting it too strongly. On reflection, however, I'm satisfied. Partly because this too is the truth: that many many young teachers leave, especially nowadays faced as they are with the disgusting reactionary regime of forced testing, rigid curricula, ever expanding work loads and class sizes. And I realized, okay, I can accept that this particular teacher's story ends thus. The other reason I came to terms with Ms. Hempel no longer being a teacher is that in this last story she runs into a former student and, through their conversation and her swirling memories and feelings, she and we see her as her students saw her, see how important she was to them, how good she was at what she did, which she never really knew. So there is a note of another kind of rue at the book's close--unless I'm reading too much into it, me with my oversized regard for teachers colored by my love of my best friend and my mother--another sort of what if. What if she'd stayed? What other lives might she have helped shape? It made me wish Ms. Hempel had had a chance to get a pep talk from my mom or my friend, champion complainers about the horrors of their lives as teachers the both of them, but both of them chained to it by true love for their true calling. Maybe these real-life teachers could have persuaded this fictional one to stick it out. Maybe not. This is the hypothetical the end left me musing on, and I can live with that.