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.