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.