Friday, December 21, 2012

My year's best

It looks like I'll finish out this year with 72 books read. I'm in the middle of one I'll finish in another day or two, then next week I head to Texas to spend the holiday break with my wife and in-laws which means probably my only reading time for the final week of the year will be on airplanes, so that's that, 72. I've had the impression of a vaguely unsatisfying reading year, but I wonder why, for when I review the books I read in 2012 I see clearly that that impression is mistaken. Curious. It's been a very good reading year indeed. Here's why: the best books I read this year.


The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
Home by Toni Morrison
The Infinities by John Banville
The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis
Once Upon a Time in England by Helen Walsh
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel
Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Yes I know--I got caught up in those damn Cromwell books by Hilary Mantel! Embarrassing, but what can I say? They're delicious, just superb juicy sublimely well written. Actually I may have more to say about them, here or elsewhere, by and by. I did blog here earlier in the year about the wonderful books by Otsuka, Tobar and De Robertis. I didn't about Brooks' novel of the plague in England; or about the new ones by Banville and Erdrich, both very fine and long since established writers; or the second book by Locke, who follows up her great debut of a couple years ago and who is a writer I will now follow anywhere; or by the master Morrison who once again works magic, this time in a quite short but oh so powerful book. Sorry I didn't, hope to do more diligent reporting on my reading in the coming year.

Meanwhile, I see a good number of also-rans in my list of 2012 reads, so, why the hell not, herewith the Honorable Mentions, books that I enjoyed a lot even if they didn't quite make me swoon:

Arcadia by Lauren Groff
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
Love and Fatigue in America by Roger King
Middle Age: A Romance by Joyce Carol Oates
The Missing by Tim Gautreaux
Monstress by Lysley Tenorio
Open City by Teju Cole
Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin
The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips
Work Song by Ivan Doig

Monday, December 17, 2012

Read it & weep. No, rage. No: act!

I just finished reading The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. 

I've known about this book for some time, of course, as it has had a major impact around the country, an ever-growing impact since its first publication two years ago. A couple months ago I attended a huge meeting on mass incarceration and the racist prison-industrial complex that took place at Riverside Church in Manhattan, where Ms. Alexander spoke, along with Angela Davis, Cornel West and others including Mumia Abu-Jamal live by telephone hookup from prison. It was an electrifying event, thousands-strong, most of them young people, such an encouraging sign about the potential for building this movement. The talks were superb, especially Michelle Alexander's. The work to which she is devoting her considerable energies is an inspiring, courageous call to action for all the rest of us, all who fight against racism and for justice.

This is one of the most important books, as well as one of the best, that I've read in a long time. You read this book and you want to buy 100 copies and force them into the hands of everyone you know and tell them to stop everything and read it. Even activists in the struggles for social justice including prisoner-solidarity work, even those who already agree with the political argument of this book and are aware of the basics of the situation elucidated in this book -- that is, that there is a war against the Black community being carried out in the name of a "war on drugs"--will learn much from The New Jim Crow. Alexander harnesses a wealth of information--facts, figures, studies, legal cases--and puts it together to present a cogent, stirring, impassioned argument that is ultimately a call to action.

This is not an easy book to read. The truths told here are bitter and hard. The human suffering wrought by the criminal "justice" system and its racist "war on drugs" is horrific. But you don't read this book for ease; you read it to inform and arm yourself so that you can step up and become a better fighter. This is a necessary book. Read it, and join the movement against mass incarceration.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

First, this, though not about lit

It's a hard day to concentrate on anything but the bitter news out of Michigan, which as of today is a "right-to-work" state. Seventy-five years after the great Flint sit-down strike, 75 years after the bloody Battle of the Overpass, it's almost impossible to believe that this could happen in one of the great centers of labor struggles in this country. I'm originally from Detroit, once a union bastion, now the prime evidence that capitalism must go, Detroit, the city destroyed by capitalism, and I'm very angry this morning.

As is everyone on our side of the class struggle. It is of course impossible to know what will be the decisive blow, the attack against the workers and oppressed that turns out to be one attack too many, the turning point at which our class rises up and begins to battle back in a massive, united way, but it seems to me that that point must be close. How much more can we take? How much worse can it get? If they can do this in Michigan--if the bosses believe they can get away with this in the heartland of organized labor--they will no doubt be emboldened to push forward to ever worse atrocities. And oh, they will regret it. Soon, I hope, very soon, they will be made to regret it.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Hiatus ends

Read Red has been inactive for about six months. Won't bore you with why, but I'm here to say I'm getting ready to revive this blog.

I'll be back soon with some new posts, including a list of my best reads of 2012. Looking forward to getting back to the business of red lit commentary, hope you'll come back to checking out what I have to say.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

This time it's official...

... sort of. The hiatus, that is. Which Read Red is now officially, sort of, on. Yes we love to hedge our bets, red readers. Final or not, long-lived or short-, this break is on. See you later. Or not.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Reading roundup

It's been a while since I've talked books here. Since that, or something in that neighborhood, is this blog's ostensible purpose, I'm going to do so now, albeit briefly.

I've read 30 books so far this year. Aside from those I've already blogged about they're a motley lot. The list ranges from great classics (Anna Karenina) to overhyped "edgy" first novels by supposed wunderkinds that I didn't like very much at all (Citrus County, Hemlock Grove) to several bleh-to-meh embarrassing pop brain-vacations (Pompeii, The Gargoyle, Sister) to one deeply insipid celebrity memoir (Diane Keaton's Then Again) to one disappointment (The Prague Cemetery) to one interesting work to which I had a complex reaction that I just haven't had time to parse here (Open City) to several books that I just pretty darned well liked. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips, Middle Age: A Romance by Joyce Carol Oates, The Missing by Tim Gautreaux, Shifting through Neutral by Bridgett M. Davis, Please Look After Mom by Kyung-Sook Shin, The False Friend by Myla Goldberg, Assumption by Percival Everett.

There were two doozies too. Really wonderful books that got to me the way I always hope a book will as I turn to its first page.

One of those is The Invisible Mountain by Carolina De Robertis. With writing that soars to lyrical heights, with deep emotion, with charged political consciousness, this novel tells the tale of three generations of women in a family whose struggles and travails tell a larger story, that of Uruguay in the 20th century. I am ashamed to confess that, until last year when I read the magnificent Memory of Fire trilogy by the brilliant Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, I did not know that the working class of Uruguay endured the same kind of fascist suppression, and in the same period, as did the workers of Chile under Pinochet and Argentina during the Dirty War. Nor about the great history of working-class and communist organizing in Uruguay. With this wrenching novel, De Robertis corrects my ignorance, and wins me over as a literary fan in the process. She has a new novel out, Perla, which looks like it takes on a story of the children of the disappeared of Argentina. It's a definite to-read.

The other great book I recently read is The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. In not much more than a hundred pages this exquisitely written, heartbreaking novel packs the kind of wallop few fatter tomes manage. Otsuka pulls off something amazing here. She makes the reader care, pulls the reader deeply in, yet there is no one protagonist, no unitary story. Rather, the book is written in the first-person plural—that is, in a sort of a chorus of voices. Whose voices are they? Japanese women whose families have made marriage agreements with men in California in the period just after World War I. We first meet them on the boat crossing the ocean. And we follow them for the next quarter century or so, as nothing they were promised comes true, as they live hard lives, toiling in the agricultural fields, raising children, trying to survive, always in the face of racism, always dreaming of something better. At the same time, and this is crucial, this choral narrator is not of one voice and she—they—do not in any way conform to stereotypes. It's impossible to unpack how Otsuka does it, but somehow sentence by sentence she both brings to life many individuals with as many dreams, aspirations, disappointments, loves and hates, and conveys an overview of what life was like for the community as a whole. Which all comes to an unbearable climax in the weeks and months after Pearl Harbor when, at the order of FDR, that entire community is forced from their homes and into internment camps in the middle of nowhere. The final pages are full of pain and terror. And then, at the very end, Otsuka does something truly audacious. The final first-person-plural chorus of voices concluding the story—telling of the empty houses, of the neighbors at first missed then quickly forgotten, the sadness shrugged off, the questions not asked—are the Anglos who go on living their lives, who spread out in fact, taking over the empty shops and farms and houses, as if those forcibly removed had never been there at all. Stunning. Devastating. Damned great writing.

Finally, I'm currently reading Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman. It's so-so and I may or may not bother finishing it. Stylistically it's a clunker, ploddingly written and unbelievably repetitive. What actual information and analysis is here is thin. Basically it's one of those books that should have been, and perhaps had its first incarnation as, a journal article and should have been left at that. Ehrman's argumentation, too, is not very satisfying. The greatest part of it consists of circular reasoning, basically that because everybody says so it's true. The earliest Gospel writers, he tells us, were clearly retelling or embellishing stories they'd heard from others, and in a leap that doesn't quite do the trick of convincing me he avers that this proves the stories are true, at least the bottom line of the stories, the existence of this Jesus fellow. I don't have a strong opinion about whether there was a Jesus fellow or not though I lean more toward thinking that there was than that there wasn't, but Ehrman doesn't provide much solid evidence to support that position. I like reading this stuff on occasion. I've read a couple of Elaine Pagels' books, I read Karl Kautsky's The Foundations of Christianity, I read articles now and then on all this business. It's interesting, how it all unfolded, though why is more interesting and Ehrman, so far at least, doesn't have anything to say about that. Meanwhile there's lots of criticism of this book, lots of back and forth polemics slinging their way across the Internet, and after reading some of it I must conclude that Ehrman's scholarship is less than stellar. So. I may stick through to the end. Or I may not.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Revolutionaries, real & fake

May Day, this "Democracy Now" broadcast about it as the day began, and the news that Tomas Borge had died the day before all prompt me to share some news and muse.

Here in New York City, it was a glorious day of solidarity in action. We rallied all afternoon in Union Square, we marched down Broadway, we stood with the Transport Workers Union in their contract struggle with the MTA, we stood with immigrant workers, and great numbers of Occupy Wall Street youths stood with the workers and oppressed, with labor organized and undocumented, in a mass demonstration of unity. The marchers numbered somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000, which made it the biggest May Day manifestation since the vast uprising of immigrant workers in 2006.

S.E. photo
Meanwhile, the working class of Nicaragua mourned on May Day, lining up in the thousands outside the National Palace of Culture in Managua to file past Tomas Borge's coffin. Borge, who died April 30, was one of the leaders of the Sandinista revolution that overthrew the hated U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship in 1979. The U.S.-based bourgeois news reports of his death defile and defame him—naturally, for here was an actual revolutionary—but it was those crowds of mourners that told the real story. Borge wrote several books that are worth revisiting, and just last year when asked whom he most admired he responded: "First, Fidel Castro. Second, Fidel Castro. Third, Fidel Castro. Fourth, Fidel Castro. Fifth, Fidel Castro."

In contrast, there's a fake revolutionary of the sort Borge would easily recognize, for they called them contras in Nicaragua, a guy who's been going around trying to diminish the Occupy Wall Street movement, seizing every opportunity to publicly denounce and divide it—all the while, of course, claiming to be all for it. This is Chris Hedges, writer and journalist beloved of social democrats, one of the leaders of the anticommunist left-liberal loyal opposition, those trying to reign in what they call corporate capitalism, as if there were any other sort, as if some extreme corporate takeover has sullied the system and can be rolled back to a kindler gentler variety as if that ever existed and ever could. This fellow throws around the word "revolution" a lot, positioning himself as a proponent, yet if you listen closely much of the time he's actually extolling counterrevolution. As in yesterday morning's "Democracy Now" broadcast, when he was given lots of air time to continue his crusade of the last couple months, excoriating the "Black Bloc" tactic sometimes used by some activists. For me, the tipoffs, if any were needed beyond his actual argument, are in his reference to the German "revolution" of 1989—better known to any actual revolutionary as the counterrevolution that overthrew the German Democratic Republic and opened up eastern Germany for capitalist ruination—and his quoting of Vaclav Havel, scion of a rich family who organized toward and eventually led the counterrevolution in Czechoslovakia, bringing his own class back into power and henceforth functioning as a puppet of U.S. imperialism.

As you'll hear if you listen to the program, Hedges' case is that somehow wearing black bandanas is an inherently counterproductive tactic and that this specific tactic somehow invites intervention by agents provocateur. This is not merely nonsense on a logical, logistical, political and every other level. It is not merely oppositional contrarianism, precisely the opposite of the support Hedges professes. It is itself a perfect example of the kind of undermining destructiveness he claims to be worried about. The so-called journalist, in other words, is himself the agent provocateur. It is he himself who's working hard to break up this exciting young movement, trying to turn activists against each other while he masquerades as an ally. That is the objective reality. Hedges fails the Which Side Are You On test. It's a shame he got yet another opportunity to do the ruling class's dirty work on May Day morning.

Luckily, Teresa Gutierrez of the May 1 Coalition for Worker and Immigrant Rights, who was also on the program although given scant air time by host Amy Goodman, managed to get in a clear counter to Hedges' baiting. The real foes, she said, are the cops. The cops are the ones to worry about, not various militant forces using various tactics. It's the cops who attack, try to divide marches, isolate groups, and so on. They're the ones to watch out for. 

As a comrade of mine noted the other day, I've never seen an OWS activist of any stripe beat someone with a nightstick or pepper spray someone or throw someone in jail. This the cops do. Their work is made easier by contras like Hedges.

Our work is to keep fighting. For real revolution, by the workers and oppressed against the bosses and bankers, their government and military, media stooges try as they may to slow our way.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

HBO's white "Girls"

I more or less zone out advertising hype for premium-cable TV shows as we can't afford any of those channels, but the incessant faux-buzz HBO's PR machine has been foisting on us all about the new series "Girls" eventually penetrated and I became aware of this new show touted as hot and hip. So I watched a little bit of the first episode online where HBO has posted it for free as part of the hype. Only a little bit because it was repulsive and also quickly boring. Repulsive in its focus on characters of monochrome petit-bourgeois privilege--in a city whose vast majority of residents are people of color and working-class--and boring, well, for the same reason. But look, the best thing for me to do here rather than rant on myself is to point you to critiques already written by others, including Black women and other people of color writers who have important things to say. You'll find incisive commentary not only on "Girls" and its obscenely disgustingly racist story editor Lesley Arfin, but also on the whole cultural context, the ongoing endless systemic racism of TV and the movies. Here, and here, and here, to start, and you'll find more if you follow some of the links in these pieces.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Justice for Trayvon Martin!

Yesterday as I was leaving to go to Union Square for the demonstration, I ended my blog post about the book Chavs with a call for working-class unity spurred by the Trayvon Martin case. Now, having spent several hours last night at the demonstration and marching through the streets of Manhattan with thousands of people, mostly young Black women and men, I can report that this case is not going away. 
The fact that thousands of people came out here, thousands of miles away and almost a month after the racist killing of this African American teenager, to demand justice, proves that. 
Trayvon Martin's parents came to the rally and spoke to those assembled. They clearly were moved, and strengtehened, by the support, and vowed to press on.
The rage of the Black community at the never-ending open season on young Black men, by police as well as by individual racists as in this case, was much in evidence last night. "I am Trayvon Martin" was chanted over and over for hours, alternating with "No justice, no peace!"

Trayvon Martin was carrying a can of iced tea and a bag of candy, Skittles, when he was gunned down, so many in the crowd too carried these items, hoisting them as they chanted. And of course everyone was wearing hoodies, as the action had been called as the "Million Hoodie March," a reference to the killer's claim that the teenager somehow looked threatening, criminal, because he had pulled on his hood to protect himself from the rain that terrible night.

I haven't posted about political events or demonstrations on this blog in quite a while, but then I haven't been to an action that was so energized and powerful in a long time either, so, despite the not-great quality of my cell phone pix, I did want to get a few of them up here. Justice for Trayvon Martin!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The demonization of the working class

I just started reading Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones. The book is about Britain, but as I expected, from the opening pages it is so so applicable to the United States. Take this from the introduction:
Politicians, particularly in the Labour Party [for this country substitute Democratic Party], once spoke of improving the conditions of working-class people. But today's consensus is all about escaping the working class. The speeches of politicians are peppered with promises to enlarge the middle class. "Aspiration" has been redefined to mean individual self-enrichment: to scramble up the social ladder and become middle class. Social problems like poverty and unemployment were once understood as injustices that sprang from flaws within capitalism which, at the very least, had to be addressed. Yet today they have become understood as the consequences of personal behavior, individual defects and even choice.

The plight of some working-class people is commonly portrayed as a "poverty of ambition" on their part. It is their individual characteristics, rather than a deeply unequal society rigged in favor of the privileged, that is held responsible. In its extreme form, this has even led to a new Social Darwinism. According to the evolutionary psychiatrist Bruce Charlton, 'Poor people have a lower average IQ than wealthier people ... and this means that a much smaller percentage of working-class people than professional-class people will be able to reach the normal entrance requirements of the most selective universities."

... [A] government dominated by millionaires [is pushing] an aggressive program of cuts, unparalleled since the early 1920s. The global economic crisis that began in 2007 may have been triggered by the greed and incompetence of a wealthy banking elite [well, yeah, they accelerated it but it's really a structural crisis of capitalism but anyway the point here is a good one, that], yet it was working-class people who were--and are--expected to pay the price.
This evening here in New York we will be marching alongside Trayvon Martin's parents to protest the horrendous racist murder of their son in Florida last month, and the cops' and courts' efforts to sweep it under the rug. Working-class unity is needed now more than ever.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

NYC loves Librotraficante

Just shy of a month since my last blog post, I'm popping in to point you here. My comrade Greg at Fuck Yeah Marxism-Leninism reports on a great little action that took place this past Saturday in front of the central branch of the New York Public Library. It was a demonstration in support of the Librotraficante movement to bring back into Arizona the Latino books that have been banned in schools there.
Photo by Redguard
Another comrade of mine, Gloria Rubac of Houston, has been taking part in the Librotraficante caravan over these last few days and I've asked her to write a guest column for this blog about it as soon as she can. So I look forward to posting that.

As for any revived regular blogging routine of my own, I make no promises though I'd love to swing back into the groove. We'll see.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Lenin on Tolstoy

I've been reading Anna Karenina—I'm about halfway through it—and it's piqued my curiosity about Leo Tolstoy. So I did some quick little surface-skimming online research about him. The trajectory of his philosophical/political/moral development is interesting. Coming from the landed gentry, Tolstoy in the course of his long life that spanned most of the 19th century and on through the first decade of the 20th became more and more a foe of the Russian status quo. He was in many ways quite radical, ultimately opposing the czarist state, the military, the feudal system, even the church. He ended up embracing a mishmosh of ideas characterized as Christian anarchism. For his rejection of the established church he was excommunicated. For his anti-stateism he was embraced by many of the leading Russian anarchists of the late 19th century, and he in turn helped them in various ways including editing and publishing some of their works. However, Tolstoy was also a pacifist. He did not think the oppressed and exploited masses should rise up and fight to overturn their oppressors. He did not support revolutionary struggle, whether of anarchist or communist or even bourgeois-democratic ilk. In fact he was not for actually doing anything. Instead, he espoused an individualistic pacific hermetic existence—not that he ever managed to actually pull such off himself, not until a last-ditch flail during his final days—just the sort of irrelevant, counterproductive, clueless nostrum that had and still has no meaning, nothing to offer, for the workers and oppressed people. Turn the other cheek, live on bread and water—this sort of thing sometimes has a nearly exotic appeal for those who've lived lives of privilege, who find themselves alienated and rebellious, who know the whole lousy system stinks, but who can only contemplate retreat as their own personal response and shrink away from any mass organized revolutionary action.

There are, I think, present-day counterparts to Tolstoy among the current crop of writers. Not necessarily alike in literary greatness, but in attitude, this alienation, this rejection, this recognition of the awfulness of life under late-stage capitalism—alienation, rejection, recognition that yet result in nothing but anomie, that are not harnessed toward any good use, that is, toward action or even support and encouragement of action. It's not hard to find novels or plays that include social critique, that hark to the hard truths about this harsh place and time. Sadly, most of them fairly reek of hopelessness. They've nothing to offer. No news, for who doesn't already know this shit stinks? And no ideas about a way forward, no direction toward how to make positive change. I've been used to thinking of this as the literature of cynicism. Having just read two commentaries on Tolstoy by V.I. Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Revolution, I realize that I've been wrong. Not all, maybe not even most, of these writers are cynics. Many of them are politically progressive in one way or another. It's just that they're trapped by the limits of their own perspective, constricted by the bourgeois consciousness that prevents them from breaking through and following their own knowledge and observation all the way toward the logical end, which is revolution. Art for revolution. Revolutionary art. And so, variously conscious as they may be, good-hearted, well-meaning, they and their words end up turned inward, serving nothing but their own need for artistic expression and readers' own hunger for good writing. Cynical, maybe not. But never rising to the heights they might.

I find Lenin's comments about Tolstoy striking among other reasons because he has no qualms about calling him a great artist. With all Tolstoy's political shortcomings and errors Lenin lists, he never denies him his due or says we shouldn't read him. He just clarifies, from the perspective of the class struggle, what Tolstoy did and didn't see, what he got right and what he got wrong. This analysis, first in a September 1908 piece, bears the fascinating title "Leo Tolstoy as the Mirror of the Russian Revolution."

Then he wrote a second piece, published in November 1910 on the occasion of the great novelist's death. Here's an excerpt.
Tolstoy’s works express both the strength and the weakness, the might and the limitations, precisely of the peasant mass movement. His heated, passionate, and often ruthlessly sharp protest against the state and the official church that was in alliance with the police conveys the sentiments of the primitive peasant democratic masses, among whom centuries of serfdom, of official tyranny and robbery, and of church Jesuitism, deception and chicanery had piled up mountains of anger and hatred. His unbending opposition to private property in land conveys the psychology of the peasant masses during that historical period in which the old, medieval landownership, both in the form of landed estates and in the form of state “allotments” definitely became an intolerable obstacle to the further development of the country, and when this old landownership was inevitably bound to be destroyed most summarily and ruthlessly. His unremitting accusations against capitalism—accusations permeated with most profound emotion and most ardent indignation—convey all the horror felt by the patriarchal peasant at the advent of the new, invisible, incomprehensible enemy … all the calamities attending the, “epoch of primitive accumulation,” aggravated a hundredfold by the transplantation into Russian soil of the most modern methods of plunder elaborated by the all powerful Monsieur Coupon.

But the vehement protestant, the passionate accuser, the great critic at the same time manifested in his works a failure to understand the causes of the crisis threatening Russia, and the means of escape from it … . His struggle against the feudal police state, against the monarchy, turned into a repudiation of politics, led to the doctrine of “non-resistance to evil,” and to complete aloofness from the revolutionary struggle of the masses in 1905–07. The fight against the official church was combined with the preaching of a new, purified religion, that is to say, of a new, refined, subtle poison for the oppressed masses. The opposition to private property in land did not lead to concentrating the struggle against the real enemy—landlordism and its political instrument of power, i.e., the monarchy—but led to dreamy, diffuse and impotent lamentations. The exposure of capitalism and of the calamities it inflicts on the masses was combined with a wholly apathetic attitude to the world-wide struggle for emancipation waged by the international socialist proletariat.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Happy Bday CD, or oops I did it again

Since the day it opened five months ago, I've been meaning to get to the Morgan Library and Museum to see its exhibit Charles Dickens at 200. It was on our itinerary when my best friend visited in November, but as always happens with these trips we couldn't do everything and Dickens got tossed. It's been on my calendar ever since but have I gone? No I have not. Now the days are few--Saturday is the exhibit's last--and given my schedule this week I see no way that I'll get there. So today, the 200th anniversary of the writer's birth, I rue my screwing this thing up.

There's some consolation, however, in the fact that a good portion of the special exhibition is in fact part of the Morgan's permanent collection. So I may yet have the opportunity to take a gander at some of the writer's letters and original manuscripts. Meanwhile, next up: Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft at the New York Public Library. This exhibit will last four months. If I don't make it to this one I--no, I must, I'll get there, I will!

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Barbarian Nurseries

Last week I read a great book. The Barbarian Nurseries by H├ęctor Tobar. I can't recommend it enthusiastically enough.

This fine novel has everything that turns me on as a reader. Beautiful, complex writing. Multidimensional, surprising characters who are anything but pat. A deeply involving story—I'm telling you, I was on the edge of my seat through the middle 200 pages, and not in a shallow cinematic-car-chase sense, oh no, what is at stake in Tobar's plot is ever so much more meaningful and important than anything any thriller writer ever conceived. Class consciousness, to the max. And most of all, social engagement, for this is a profoundly relevant and timely novel. Relevant, that is, to some of the most compelling issues facing our class here and now.

Primary among these issues is immigration, specifically the struggles of undocumented workers and the racist war being waged against them. It's not for me to say, but I suspect this just might be the novel of Los Angeles and southern California. The novel that tells the truth.

Necessarily the reader is drawn immediately and throughout to take sides. From start to finish we are on the side of the main character, a Mexican immigrant, undocumented, who works in the household of a well-off suburban couple. Tobar is a largehearted writer, allowing every character her/his humanity even when objectively they don't deserve our sympathy, sketching no one as a stick figure or stereotype. Still, his great achievement is his protagonist, Araceli Ramirez. An artist who finds herself stuck cooking and cleaning in someone else's house, ultimately stuck taking care of someone else's kids when she never wanted to, smart, prickly, resentful and full of contradictions—that is, fully human, as many-layered as every human being is—Tobar's Araceli is never less than fascinating. I can't remember the last time I cared so much about a fictional character, was so invested in where her story would lead.

There's too much juice here to suck it dry by giving more specific details about the story itself. Readers should come at it clean. Let it sweep you along. I will note that I was a bit puzzled at the end, at Tobar's treatment of a certain southwestern state as the story winds down. It almost left me wondering whether there's a sequel in the works. That would be splendid.

Monday, January 30, 2012


Check this out--and become a part of the Librotraficante movement!

This exciting, in-your-face challenge to the Arizona anti-Latino book ban is building toward a caravan to bring books across the border in defiance of that state's racist campaign against immigrants, Latinos and Latino Studies. So far several authors have committed to taking part in the caravan. They include Sandra Cisneros, Luis Alberto Urrea and Dagoberto Gilb.

The caravan is being built and will originate in Houston and San Antonio, Texas, but the call is going out nationwide to join in. Check out the website and do what you can to join the Librotraficantes.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The (semi) seduction of S

Some six weeks after shocking myself and perhaps one or two others by buying an e-reader, I thought I'd stop in here for a brief posting about my experience with the machine so far.

Mostly, I like it. A lot. There are caveats, however, and, in a weird bizarro-world twist on my reading life pre-E, mostly they have to do with libraries.

First the good news. I continue to love the loss of the heavy weight of physical books burdening my backpack and my back. I love the petite sleek ease of handling that is the key feature of my little red machine. This lovely little number fits my grip as no book ever did, love the grip of books though I always have. I find the reading experience swell. I've also been having a lot of fun searching out and retrieving free books at Project Gutenberg and sometimes Google Books. I've read several issues of the New York Times Book Review on my reader, because the bookstore where I pick up my weekly free copy is unreliable, sometimes offering a pile, sometimes not, and so the weeks when the paper NYTBR isn't available for free, I live a little and spend the dollar and change to buy it onto my reader. The rag itself remains as maddening as ever for its reactionary politics and mostly dimwitted reviews--and in the electronic version, those endless back pages of infinite versions of bestseller lists are endlessly annoying, turning them virtually seeming to be more of a time-consuming obstacle than flipping actual pages ever is--but it's a habit I can't seem to break so it's nice to have the e-option.

I did break down and buy a couple books, quite cheap, but that same week I used a gift certificate I'd been holding on to and also picked up some physical books at a physical bookstore. So it's not as though I've abandoned the old technology.

Except--eek--yes I have! Sheepishly I shall admit: I've quickly grown so enamored of the ease of use of this new approach to reading that, despite the to-read piles of books amassed throughout my apartment, whenever I finish a book and am faced with the choice of which one to read next, I find myself turning toward those on the e-reader and not those towering on my dresser or crammed onto bookshelves. It seems that I can't bring myself to heft a book book anymore. Or at least not yet. I hope and trust that it's just the newness of the thing, and that I'll soon settle down, settle into the pattern I'd predicted and expected, that is, moving between physical and e-books, picking what I want to read next based on what I want to read next, not based on how I'll access the book's words.

There's a further complication. E-borrowing from the library. This has turned out to be an exasperating experience, further skewing, nay limiting in an unexpected way, my reading choices. Yes, the libraries have limited offerings and long lines for those few e-books, I wrote about this in my last post. What I didn't know yet at that point is that the effect not only of the shortage but of the whole e-library-borrowing setup is insidious. See, I'll log on at the library, search its e-book collection, find, say, three or four I'd like to read, and add myself to the waiting list. Then, some days or weeks later, I'll get an email from the library saying such-and-such e-book I requested is now available for me to check out and that I have three days to do so. Well now. If I don't check out the book I lose my shot at it. If I do check it out, a countdown clock immediately kicks in, and I have 21 days to read it. At the end of those 21 days the e-library-book will disappear from my e-reader. Ack! What if I'm in the middle of reading it? Too bad! It's gone! And so I lose all volition. If it's a book I want to read, I have to either set aside whatever book I'm already reading if I'm concerned this library e-book might take a while and start it immediately, or finish the book I'm reading and then have no choice but to start this library e-book as my next one. Either way I'll feel that 21-day clock nipping at me as I read it. The effect is compounded if I've borrowed more than one.

The experience is absolutely opposite the way I've always used libraries. I've always made my rounds--I frequent two to three branches of the New York Public Library, two branches of the Queens Library, and the library of the university where I work--and taken out armloads of books. These armloads become piles alongside the rest of my to-read piles, and I have this juicy embarrassment of riches always at my fingertips. And so I've always danced a splendid dance, arcane, unique, with steps only I know, each time I'm ready to start a new book, roaming among the available volumes until I decide which one it'll be. The library books might stay piled for a good long while, as I renew and renew and renew, so there's never been any pressure to get to them before books I own. No one, no entity,no algorithm, no clock, ever forced upon me the decision of my next book. Now that freedom is gone. I miss it.

Ah well, these are kinks, I'd like to think, and will work themselves out. Overall I remain glad I got the device. One day soon I'll return to this space to report on some of what I've read on it.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A traitor to the cause

That's me.

I've betrayed book lovers everywhere. Not to mention made myself a hypocrite, flouting my own blog posts decrying the trend.

Yes, that's right. I bought an e-reader.

While I'm admitting, let me admit this too: I'm glad I did. I think.

Once I was handed a gift of the money to get one, and the price dipped below a hundred dollars, and I finished obsessively researching and comparing the various machines, and I quizzed everyone I know who has used one, and I tried several out, and once I woke up one morning too many with a painful neck from lugging fat books day in day out, I decided. And once I decided I quickly made my move.

I got a device by Sony, which was the first manufacturer of e-readers although it's now been eclipsed in sales figures and hype by others. The version I got is the company's latest, newest, called the Sony Reader WiFi, and I'm pretty darned sure I made a good choice. It's the only high-quality e-reader that offers full online access and still has an e-ink screen. The other newish readers with which you can go online all have shiny LCD screens, not good for reading for long periods. With e-ink this is not, of course, a device for gaming or movie watching or any of that crap but none of that crap is what I want to do. I want to read, books, newspapers, whatever, and for that this contraption is perfect. It's set up very nicely for quick easy library borrowing, for quick easy downloading of free books from Google or Project Gutenberg, for emailing, for reading periodicals, it handles any and every e-book format out there, and of course it lets you buy e-books. The latter I have not yet done. At this point I've got over a dozen books on my reader, and all are either free downloads, including The Communist Manifesto which I just love knowing I now have on my person at all times, or library loans.

A big disappointment, which has nothing to do with this particular device, is that it turns out there aren't that many e-books available for library borrowing. One reason is that there just aren't that many books available in electronic format yet. OK, fair enough. The other, however, is more sinister. Publishers--that is, capitalists who make books for the purpose of making money--are refusing to sell more than minimal numbers of e-books to libraries. Afraid that library loans will cut into their profits, they're trying to force people to buy rather than borrow e-books. And sure enough, I've found it quite tough to get the library books I want electronically. There are so few available copies that there are long lists of people lined up waiting their turn for every one of the scant e-books available. In my first online library session looking for books last weekend, I spent about an hour and only managed to actually retrieve four books. Well I'll live with that for now; after all it's not much different than the physical-world experience of using libraries, where I've often walked in looking for one book, not found it but walked out with several other titles.

There are other frustrations. The touch screen is sometimes too sensitive, sometimes unresponsive. I flew into a terrible howling rage on my second day of reading on the device when it suddenly froze up completely. I couldn't turn the page backward or forward, couldn't close the book, couldn't even turn off the machine. I'd been deep into a reading session, engrossed in a book—my god, can you imagine suddenly not being able to keep reading! No physical book has ever done that to me, just closed itself up and not let me continue. It really made me crazy, and I started yelling that I was going to return it—I mean, really, what's the use of the thing if it blocks you from reading?—but then finally after about 10 minutes, during which I'd been searching online for what to do about the problem, it came back to life. That has not happened again since, and if it does I now know how to reboot the thing. In any case I have one more week to decide whether I'm definitely going to keep it. There's a 30-day return policy, and if it freezes up again I might decide to return it.

I'm not going to return it. Who'm I kidding? Because here's the thing, the unexpected thing: I love it! I love its slim sleek metallic red pretty handle-ability. I love its near weightlessness. I love how easy it is to read on it.

Yes, it is. All my worries about how different e-reading would be were, it turns out, unfounded. It required no getting-used-to period. There was no learning curve whatsoever. I started reading a book and it was exactly like starting to read a book. I read a book. It was an identical experience to, you guessed it, reading a book.

It's worth keeping in mind, I think, that all these machines, e-readers, tablets, smartphones, all the touchscreen and related technologies, are in their infancy. The e-reader I got might be the third iteration of Sony's offerings, but in truth all e-readers are first-generation devices. No doubt considerably improved new makes will keep hitting the market. Those of another class who can afford to buy every new and improved version will continue to do so, upgrading every year or so, remaining always on the leading edge. Our class? We content ourselves with some variation on my approach: watching, waiting, then, if and when we feel the need and decide we can afford it, making our move, buying a good-enough commodity and living with it for as long as we can or until it dies and we're forced to either live without it or buy whatever we can afford again at that point. In fact, I'm currently at a similar stage with regard to my laptop. It's almost five years old, and true to the profiteers' planned obsolescence design, it's on its last legs so I'm searching for the cheapest available replacement that meets my needs. It won't be the newest shiniest one with the most bells and whistles. Over time, as ever newer and shinier models are marketed, mine will come to seem outdated and shabby even as it continues to perform the (really quite limited) functions I require, and no doubt I, for even socialists, at least the imperfect ones like me, are not immune to the marketers' want-want-want buy-buy-buy siren song, will wish for the latest, flashiest, coolest while continuing to make do with that lamentably minimal machinery, that which does what I need it to do.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

World without women

I'm in the 11th and last day of my holiday break, one of the few perks of university employment (the main other one being casual dress), and I can report that I read three books during these days off. Which would be a good thing if only I could report that they were three books I liked. Alas, that is not the case. Even though each was technically proficient, very well written, of high literary quality, engrossing, even, I found them all flawed in various ways. One flaw that all three books, each written by men, shared is their male-centric narrative orientation.

The worst offender goes beyond male-centeredness, in fact travels deep into misogyny. This is Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross. It's a strange, unpleasant, ultimately creepy, dirty-feeling experience reading such a book--a book all of whose main female characters, rather than fully fledged fully imagined complex individual human beings who act with agency and are portrayed with depth and dimension, are instead caricatures of womanhood's worst, that is, the wife. The wife, in all her irrational, hysterical, crazy, contradictory, impossible to please--for yes, each wife is seen only through the eyes of her husband with the exception of one brief passage that basically sets up this wife's coming murder as more or less her own fault--extremes. The wife, who drives the husband always to dreams of killing her, such dreams thickly interwoven with the husband's deep endless helpless love of this unfathomable mysterious creature, this sex object whose sole function is to frustrate his simple heartfelt desire to live a good life with her. Here with this book we find fully ripened, plucked, and offered up proudly the cultural fruits of patriarchal society: profound misogyny served up via very fine writing (hence how dirty I felt at the end, for even as I loathed this book I couldn't put it down), extremely creative literary work, interesting postmodern tricks of structure and meaning. Art, then. Misogyny as high art.

One specific aspect of Mr. Peanut that I found offensive, shallow and thoroughly inauthentic was its treatment of a female character's struggles with weight issues. The book I'd read just before this one also featured a very fat character, this one a man, and, I'm sorry to say, an even less true, honest or insightful depiction of the consciousness, feelings, self-image and motivations of a fat person. I'm sorry to say it because the book is Lost Memory of Skin by Russell Banks. I respect and admire Banks, have liked several of his books and adore one, Cloudsplitter, as among my all-time favorites. Here, however, it's not just on the fat front that I feel he fails. The fat character, the Professor, falls flat altogether. Since his part of the story is key, nearly as key as the central character called the Kid's, the Professor's never coming to life is a fatal difficulty, one from which this novel cannot recover. Which is too bad, because it's an interesting story Banks tells here, an interesting topic he takes on in telling the story of the Kid, a young white working-class man forced into homelessness after being convicted of a "sex crime." Banks is known for his portrayals of characters like this, indeed his exploration of what it is to be a man in this society, and I do think that with the Kid he has crafted a poignant, credible, thought-provoking portrait of a young man adrift in the currents of this vulgar, vile, materialistic, pornographic culture. I wish he'd left the Professor out of it altogether; I don't think he accomplishes what he meant to with this far less than successfully realized character. As for women, well for all intents and purposes, there are none. The very few female characters make only brief appearances and only stand in, at that, for some archetype. Worst, I was very disappointed in how Banks sets up the Kid's mother as pretty much the villain of the piece, her self-centered pathetic party-girl failure to, well, mother her son presented as a glib explication of how he got so, well, fucked up. Yeah yeah yeah blame the mother, it's always the mother's fault. What an unfortunately easy way out. I'm sad Banks took it.

I don't have anywhere near such serious criticism on the female front of the first book I read over the break, Zone One by Colson Whitehead, so it's a little unfair of me to include my comments about this book in this post. But I did somehow tumble my tuchas down into a land of all male authors over the holidays, a world without a woman's perspective anywhere to be found, so I'll go on here with a bit about this book. Which is, to my knowledge, the first zombie novel by a first-rate author of serious literary fiction. I've read all of Whitehead's fiction. I believe that his first novel, The Intuitionist, was such a masterpiece that it really wouldn't matter if he'd only written pure dreck since then, his reputation would stand on that achievement (and by the way the protagonist is a woman). Of course he has not written anything like dreck. His fictional output has been by my lights a little uneven, some books better than others, but always worth reading. As I think I've said before on this blog, Colson Whitehead is incapable of writing a bad sentence. This is a very fine artist. That much holds true for his foray into zombieland. From the opening page, his literary brilliance shines. Sentence by sentence, he wows. With insight, wordplay, ideas, cultural and social commentary. Yes, this too is a pretty male-oriented book, but although there are only a couple female characters and they don't get much to do or say, no characters except the main one, known as Mark Spitz, do, so I see no great sexist crime here. I do, sorry again to say, have a couple complaints. One is of a type I almost never make: the writing is too good. The language is so pretty, it soars and zings so, that it far outshadows the story itself. Actually, the story itself is brief and thin and the beautiful writing can't sustain it. The few times that plot intervenes and something happens, something shocking or gory, the impact is blunted by the angle of approach. Does this mean a great literary author can't write an effectively scary and horrifying zombie novel? Who knows, but in this novel the terror--the literal terror, I mean, the OMG a drooling undead thing is about to bite my face off--is muted. There is the existential dread, yes, and there is certainly the broad bemused consideration of the zombielike state of this society--yes, this is pretty much the point of the whole book. Surprised as I am to feel this way, though, I find that not enough. The symbolism overpowers the story, and the result is unsatisfying. 

My other unhappiness about Zone One is the same one I've noted here before about other horror and sci-fi books and movies: I feel let down at the limits of postapocalyptic imagination. I mean, here we are, the world as we know it has pretty much ended, the bedraggled remnants of scattered humanity are left to try to save themselves, destroy the monsters and remake the world, and what do they do, how do they go about it? Why, the same old way they went about destroying the world in the first place. The corporations are in charge, working hand in hand with a dishonest, corrupt provisional government, the government and corporations arming and supplying the zombie hunters, and so on. I mean, really? There's no one left alive to think that there might be a better way of organizing things this time around? In the real world, the ever more appalling ravages of late-stage capitalism--which after all is what Whitehead is commenting about throughout the novel--are bringing on crisis after crisis, impoverishing more and more people, making life worse and worse, and all this will eventually lead to the ultimate crisis to which the only possible response will be socialist revolution. So why is it that in the fictional world of zombies, or aliens, or vampires, in all these fictional futures in which the accumulated ills of this society have led to an ultimate final crisis, nobody does what human beings without a doubt will actually do, that is get the idea to pull together, work together cooperatively, reorganize society in a new, better way? Why is this so far beyond the reach of the literary imagination? Not only would it be more plausible, I think it'd be a hell of a riproaring story too. The bourgeois undead vanquished by the living masses united in a revolutionary monster-demolishing front.