Monday, December 22, 2014

My year's best

It looks like I'll end the year having read 78 or 79 books. Here are my favorites. As always, this list is based on books I read this year, not books published this year (though some were published this year I believe). I'm working on my new author website, with my novel Vera's Will due for February publication, so I'll come back here in January with a post and link to the new site. For now, though, check out these excellent books.

Fiction & poetry

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Into the Go-Slow by Bridgett M. Davis
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
My Father's Ghost is Climbing in the Rain by Patricio Pron
Philadelphia Fire by John Edgar Wideman
She Rises by Kate Worsley
I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita
A History of the African American People (Proposed) By Strom Thurmond by Percival Everett
See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler
How It All Began by Penelope Lively
I Dreamt I Was in Heaven by Leonce Gaiter
The City of Palaces by Michael Nava
Perla by Carolina De Robertis
Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
The Unseen by Nanni Balestrini
Long Man by Amy Greene

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass
Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine
Goliath by Max Blumenthal

Sunday, June 15, 2014

VERA'S WILL by .... me!

I'm thrilled to announce that my novel Vera's Will is set for publication by Hamilton Stone Editions in late 2014/early 2015.

It's been a long hard slog. I started writing this book 15 years ago. I started trying to get it published almost 10 years ago. I got a lot of positive reactions from agents and publishers, but all of it was along the lines of "this is great, I'm sure someone will grab it up, but it's not for us, we wouldn't know how to market it." I held on to the "this is great" bits, told myself the "we can't market it" bits were anti-gay and anti-political-fiction, nursed oceans of resentment and hostility (as one does LOL) toward anyone who did manage to get a book published. Went on to start a second novel, worked on it in fits and starts, grew ever more enervated and discouraged as I approached age 60 and wrestled with encroaching health problems, all the while trundling to work and back endlessly with no prospect of affordable retirement ever in sight.

Now, though, tra-la! My novel will see the light of day, and I couldn't be happier. Of course this entails lots more labor. These recent weeks I've been toiling at some revisions requested by HSE, which terrified me at first but by which I've now become energized. The big thing, gulp, is that I'm writing a new ending. I think it might work! This is a huge relief.
The other hard part of the final revisions is dealing with the song lyrics that pop up in many scenes throughout the novel. U.S. law makes it impossible to include any snatch of a song lyric, no matter how brief, and not even a song title either, without the permission of the copyright holder. The way the copyright holder (rarely the actual songwriter, usually one of the big music corporations like BMI) grants permission is basically by selling it. You have to pay for the right to include the bit of lyric. The cost ranges from hundreds to thousands of dollars. Well, guess what, I haven't got hundreds or thousands of dollars and neither does my small-press publisher. And so, with great snarling sadness, I'm having to go through page by page, find each song lyric, and excise it, sometimes altogether, sometimes change it to a sort of reference that is not an actual direct quote of the lyric. I hate hate hate this! It's hard to do without diluting, damaging any given scene. I've been surprised to find out how many lyrics appear throughout the manuscript, though I guess I shouldn't be as it makes sense for my two protagonists that popular music is a part of their lives; I feel like I should apologize to them for yanking it away.

And lyrics from songs performed by what legendary artist show up in my novel more than any other? Why, Aretha Franklin, of course. Ouch! Oy! Last night at her wonderful Radio City concert (see post below), I was surprised, delighted, and, well, thrown into a sob-o-rama, when she sang one of my most beloved of her songs, "Gotta Find Me An Angel," written by her late sister Carolyn Franklin. This song is key to a climactic scene in my novel. It's killing me that I've got to delete the (brief but important) lines from it. But delete them I must. Ah the life of the tortured artist.

OK, yeah, I know, pity me not. My novel's getting published! I'll be back with details as the date approaches.

Aretha Franklin at Radio City

Last night a dream came true: I saw Aretha Franklin in person, performing in a live concert. Oh me oh my it was everything I'd imagined it would be, all these years of daydreaming and a-thinking of her, since I first got turned on to her magic when I was a teenager in 1960s Detroit. I own something like 20 of her albums and I never tire of listening to them. Still, there's nothing like the real thing, and last night at the magnificent Art Deco palace that is Radio City Music Hall, I finally got to experience it.

She was magnificent. Her voice is intact. Intact! I could close my eyes, in fact I did several times, and think I was listening to the Aretha of 30, 40 years ago. Everything that makes her unique--and I do believe she is unique, more on that in a minute--was on full display. Despite her health problems of recent years, including a life-threatening cancer siege that she ultimately vanquished, despite her years, 72 of them, which accumulation of time usually affects voice quality and range, somehow, the gift, the magic, the miracle are still there. Fully there, fully undiminished.

I'm not a singer or musician so I don't have the technical vocabulary to talk about what she does or how she does it. I only know that, IMHO, when Aretha Franklin sings it is a phenomenon unlike any other. She does things no one else does. There is a quality to her voice, sometimes a breathy lyricism, sometimes a deep alto swoop, sometimes an operatic pitch upward, something about her diction, her superb mastery of rhythm, her finely tuned conveyance of emotional depth. Her voice. What else can I say but: her voice! It is like no other.

There are and have been other great singers, certainly. There are and have been other singers whose work I love and admire, of course. But I believe there is no one like her. I believe she deserves every accolade she has ever received. And so when I hear, as one sometimes does, negative commentary by cultural critics or other performers who disparage what they deem the lopsided unearned acclaim accorded Aretha Franklin, I get mad. I disagree heartily. And I want to say to them: yes the system sucks, yes a music industry based on the drive for profit stacks all the odds against artists, especially artists of color, working-class artists, the young, the poor. But once in a great while, a true artist arises from the ranks of the masses and, by some combination of timing, luck, talent and unimaginably hard work, manages to break through all the barriers and bring her art forward. On the rare occasions when this happens, we shouldn't blame the artist--it's not Aretha Franklin's fault that her record labels figured out a way to make money off her music over the years, any more than it's the divine Toni Morrison's fault that the publishing industry recognized her, took her up and brought her work to the page. These exemplars of artistic genius should inspire the utmost respect, not resentment, in my opinion, especially as they get older and every note, every word they offer becomes that much more precious.

I've written often on this blog about my belief that there are deep wells of unrecognized artistic talent, unimagined creativity, residing in millions if not billions of individuals around the world. About the people, the workers and the oppressed, who have inside them masterpieces of fiction and poetry, whose voices would shame the nightingales, whose musicianship would shock and shake us, whose paintings and sculptures, plays and installations and dance would open our eyes and grab our hearts and stir up our minds. And about how none of them, or almost none, will ever get the chance to explore the art that's waiting within them, or perhaps even know it's there, because their life consists of the struggle to survive in the face of exploitation, racism and oppression. This, to my mind, is one of the great crimes of capitalism: how it robs human beings of the opportunity to explore their artistic potential and robs humanity of the culture that could be created if society were organized around meeting the needs of the 99%  instead of amassing private profit for the 1%.

So let's celebrate our luck at the exception, and her name is Aretha Franklin. My luck is that I experienced her gift for an hour and a half last night.

I'm going to close with two things: first this report on last night's concert, for those who want a more specific blow by blow. And last, a passage from the novel Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid. It combines a nice dig at U.S. imperialism with a beautiful tribute to Detroit's own wonder. The scene is Lahore, Pakistan, in the late days of the 20th century:
We met for tea and talk on Tuesdays, after which I gave him a ride (gratis) to wherever he was going. Our conversations ran from economics to automotive maintenance, broken noses, and Aretha Franklin. (A word about this last: a foreign tourist once left a cassette in the back of my rickshaw, and when I took it home and played it, I discovered the Queen of Soul. Life was never the same. In the past, when people said America has never given us anything, I used to agree. Now I say, "Yes, but America has given us Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul," and they look at me strangely. I never explain any further: one cannot explain Aretha Franklin; either you are enlightened or you are not. That is how I view the matter.)
Thank you, my dearest sister Ms. Franklin, for all you've given me over the years. And for last night, an hour and a half I'll never forget.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

I Hotel

I just read a hell of a book. I Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita. Although I've mostly abandoned Read Red (for good reasons now! I'll post about that separately, after this), I'm compelled to stop in here to recommend this very fine novel.

It's a panoramic, yes even kaleidoscopic with all the word's trippy connotations, recounting of the political organizing among and struggles of Asian Americans in San Francisco from the late 1960s to late 1970s. Which culminated in the battle to save the I Hotel. Such a big story, comprising so many individual stories, and how does Yamashita tackle it? By telescoping in and out, veering round and about, telling and retelling, circling, approaching, pulling back, zooming in. There are many characters, many communities, much overlapping; there are jumpcuts and slo-mos; love and rage and beauty and death; there are workers and students, revolutionaries and artists; thought and action. Theory and practice!

This is not a novel to read for deep characterizations. Although there are many stunning moments, evocations of emotion, relationship pivots, in a book this big with so many characters and so many angles from which to tell the various smaller stories that spin together to tell the overall big story, mostly there are character sketches, and that's okay. You have to get into the rhythm, you have to accept that just as you are pulled into one life you're going to be yanked away toward another, but have faith, stick with it, they're all linked, they're almost all told more than once from more than one vantage point, and they'll all come together by the end. At which point you'll be weeping and raving as the people band together to save the I Hotel and the state mobilizes to smash them.

For perhaps the first one-third of the book I was a bit on edge because I was unsure whether the author was presenting these characters and these stories with the attitude that is prevalent in U.S. literature, that is, the distanced cynical 40-years-later attitude that looks upon the struggles of the 60s and 70s as misguided and overdone, the strugglers as naive and foolish. You know, I've ranted about it often enough here at Read Red: the "madness-of-the-60s" genre. But no, ultimately I relaxed and trusted Yamashita as a comradely guide presenting to the reader a lovingly rendered telling about people and a time and place that mattered if what matters to you is the struggle against oppression and racism, for liberation and justice. If you love that struggle, if you love your sisters and brothers who give themselves to it, you'll love this book.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

I never say "rest in peace"

because it's silly, it's not materialist, dead people don't "rest," they simply cease to exist at least as living organisms. In the case of the great novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who died today and is now being eulogized by folks across the class spectrum, it would be a shame to let his legacy swiftly settle into something mushy, malleable, palatable to oppressor as well as the oppressed with whom he stood for most of his life. So here, in images because who can dare try words in tribute to such a master, a few reminders of which side he was on.

The first two, of course, are the writer with Fidel. The next one, very recent, shows him with current Cuban President Raul Castro. The last one is a young Garcia Marquez with Pablo Neruda, who would be assasinated by the U.S.-backed Chilean fascist coup regime in September 1973.

Instead of wishing a dead person rest, we say to the living: Gabrial Garcia Marquez presente! Which reminds us that his accomplishments, his inspiration, his art, his class consciousness live on.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Tale for the Time Being

My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki is one of my all-time favorite novels. I also liked (though didn't love) her second one, All Over Creation. Then there was a long dry spell. Some years back I googled her in hopes of finding out she was working on a new novel, only to learn instead that she was studying to become a Buddhist priest* and, I either read or inferred, had dropped novel writing. O woe is me, I lamented. Oh no, a great author lost to the ether. I must of course on principle respect anyone's religious views even though I, as a Marxist, am a thoroughgoing materialist. Respect her inward turn though I might, I was bummed. One of our finest novelists, one of our most politically engaged novelists, down for the count.

Shows how much I know. It seems you can be a Buddhist monk or priest or nun and also still be a wonderful and fully politically engaged novelist. Duh: once again the depths of my ignorance plumbed. Really I should have remembered this on my own, that Buddhist practice, at least some variants of it, doesn't automatically negate political engagement, having more than once during my teens watched on the TV news horrific film of Buddhist monks in Vietnam immolating themselves to protest the U.S. war against their country. In fact in this newest novel Ozeki herself provides fascinating evidence of a stirring history of feminist and revolutionary nuns in Japan. One of the main characters here, a 104-year-old nun named Jiko, is based on one or more actual women, rebellious activists and/or writers. I'd be interested to try to find and read some of the real-life works mentioned in the course of this fictional Jiko's story.

Hers is only one of the lives examined. This is a book of stories within stories, layers opening onto newer deeper layers, all of it peeled back with an exquisite artistry that in my opinion exceeds anything Ozeki has accomplished before. I will note that there are magical elements, especially late in the book. I have no problem with such a literary technique if it works. Here, to my taste, it weakened rather than strengthened or deepened the book's overall power, but not to any marked degree. On balance, this is a terrific book, a beautiful story of human suffering and survival, as well as a meditation on the meaning and worth of fiction itself, or so it reads to me.

A Tale for the Time Being then, I'm happy to report, the first book I've read in 2014, starts my reading year on a high note. I started late, nearly two weeks in, because I spent the opening days of the new year along with the last weeks of 2013 horribly ill with shingles, so ill and in such pain that I couldn't read. Away with all that! Onward to a red reading year!

*In the original version of this post I erroneously referred to Ozeki studying to be a monk; she studied to be and in fact is a priest. More numbskullery on my part for which I humbly apologize.