Saturday, December 30, 2017

My year's best

These are the best of the 80 books I read in 2017:

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout 
An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
Autumn by Ali Smith
A Book of American Martyrs by Joyce Carol Oates
La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton 
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich 
Glyph by Percival Everett
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
La Rose by Louise Erdrich
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Swing Time by Zadie Smith 
An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Volgiamo Tutto by Nanni Balestrini
White Tears by Hari Kunzru

The History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz


Wednesday, December 6, 2017


I knew she was good, great even, one of the finest and most important authors of our time. She's written many good and some great novels, most of which I've read and several of which I've loved. I knew. Still, maybe I didn't know, not really, how truly gifted she is.

Because goddamn if Louise Erdrich hasn't gone and done it: written an intelligent, wise, thoughtfully crafted, beautiful and deep and deeply literary dystopian novel. That elusive oft-sought gem I'd despaired of ever finding.

This blog is replete with my plaints about the myriad failings of dystopian fiction, sadly including books by otherwise good writers, certainly including critically acclaimed books. Not a one of them has met what I think are my quite modest requirements: honesty, credibility or at least internal credibility, not-nonsensical plotting and not-laughably stupid distortions of science, an at least minimal nod to political reality, a progressive slant that among other things precludes white- and male-centric story, and above all an imagination expansive enough to create a fictive reality that moves beyond the status quo in terms of social systems, an imagination that conceives a different way forward. 

These modest requirements are met and exceeded by this brilliant and thus far underappreciated novel. I say underappreciated because while yes it's been reviewed and has received some attention since the author is after all Louise Erdrich, most reviews have damned it with faint praise, judging this one of her lesser works. In my view the opposite is true. Future Home of the Living God is one of her greatest accomplishments.

I won't spoil anything for the potential reader with specifics about the story Erdrich tells here. Instead I'll emphasize how this novel shines with creative intelligence--intelligence about humanity, about community, about science and nature, and also intelligence about what kind of story a story such as this should tell. It's not only by comparison to the relentlessly stupid dystopias to which we've been subjected by so many other writers, but on its own merits and measured according to the work of art this book sets out to be, that Future Home of the Living God achieves greatness. I loved every minute of it, every painful and frightening and perversely hopeful page.


Monday, September 4, 2017

Reading revolution

2017 is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The precise date the Bolsheviks took power is November 7. In the lead-up to the anniversary of this glorious landmark of world history, I'm doing a little reading.
First, I'm reading The History of the Russian Revolution by Leon Trotsky (which, by the way, is available in a free e-book version here). Actually I think I'm rereading it, but the truth is that I have little specific memory of most of the great Marxist works I read in my early 20s as my aging brain seems to no longer retain that kind of detail. So now, 40 years later, even if it weren't the centenary, it'd be time to read them again. Especially now. To refresh and re-arm. None of us could have predicted even a year ago the way the class struggle in this country would so swiftly and sharply re-ignite. It has, though, and is heating up daily, and as I read Trotsky's superlative, thrilling, incisive, commanding narrative I come across passage after passage that is stunningly apposite. Much as I'd like to, I don't know that I'll remember these fantastically on-target formulations (see above re aging brain), but I do believe they'll have a cumulative impact and I'll come away from this book with a deepened, renewed understanding of how revolution is accomplished.

It is a long book, and I'm reading it slowly as pretty much every sentence is a gem requiring concentration and consideration, so who knows whether I'll finish before the 100th anniversary arrives. Whenever I do, though, I'll be moving on to two others that I'm embarrassed to say I have not read before but am eager to begin.

One is The Black Jacobins by the brilliant Marxist historian CLR James, who by the way called Trotsky's book "the greatest history of an event that I know." James' book, subtitled Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, is the history of the Haitian Revolution, the world's first successful slave revolution. The other is A Socialist History of the French Revolution by Jean Jaures, of whom Trotsky said, "Every revolutionary party, every oppressed working class can claim Jaures, his memory, his example, for our own."

Meanwhile, fiction obsessive that I am, I'm also reading a novel or two here and there, most of them trending in the revolutionary direction as well. One I just finished and do, to my own surprise, recommend is The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton. This book is set in the aftermath of, the ensuing two to three years after, the unfinished Egyptian revolution of 2011, the mass uprisings centered in Cairo's Tahrir Square that were the central events of what came to be known as the Arab Spring. I nearly didn't read this one. Basically because it was so widely praised by the bourgeois literary establishment that I assumed it couldn't be any good politically. I decided to give it a try. Then I nearly stopped within the first few pages because I saw that the story (1) is not about the actual 2011 uprising as I'd mistakenly thought it would be but rather takes place in the following years, and (2) is not a narrative about or from the point of view of the oppressed masses but rather is about and from the point of view of several middle-class artsy types--filmmakers, photographers, audio engineers--who undertake to record, bear witness to, the struggle. I kept going, though, and was soon won over, in fact swept up in the narrative. What is winning about this novel? For one thing, it's honest about point of view and achieves what felt to me like real authenticity. Also, the main characters may not be starving proletarians, but they are genuine partisans of the revolutionary insurgence who've assessed that their highest contribution will be to bring the news of it to the world. They're propagandists in the best sense of the word. As such, as partisans and propagandists, they do not stand outside the course of events. They don't just tell the story, they become part of the story. They are sincere, they are dedicated, they are in the thick of it. They sacrifice. They suffer. Ultimately, as the counter-revolution (armed and funded by U.S. imperialism which I wish Hamilton had touched on a bit more) retains and tightens its grip on the state, they are defeated. But only temporarily, as Egypt and the Arab masses, above all the Palestinian nation, will rise again, and at the novel's perfect end it's clear that the surviving characters are still in the fight.

Oh, and by the way, don't hold the literary establishment's praise of this novel against it. I suspect the critics felt free to laud it because they believe the story it tells is well and buried. They're wrong. As all will see.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

I still buy books & other secrets

I'm popping in here for the weirdly contrarian purpose of sharing a secret or two. Secret number one is that I do still buy physical books sometimes. In the early years of this blog I wrote several times about my book-gathering compulsions--store-buying and library-borrowing--which tended to build to irresistible levels at certain periods. Namely, approaching holidays or vacations. It seems I had, and indeed still have, a horror of finding myself with plenty of time to read and an insufficient supply of choices. Just heard about, been reading to mean forever, and every category in between, there's no clear pattern to how and why I zoom around grabbing up books in the lead-up to leisure time. Older, tireder, but if anything more compulsive a reader than ever, the pattern still applies. And so, as my summer month off work draws near, I've been scouring my to-read list, other people's to-read lists, reviews, and so on, and cross-checking same with: the three library systems I use, the two e-library systems I use, online booksellers, and the Strand. And then, variously, borrowing library books physical and virtual, and, yes, when I find one or seventeen on the Strand's cheap shelves, buying them. I'm about to head up there on today's lunch hour, having put together a list of half a dozen I think I can afford. Meanwhile, I've got another three already on e-book library loan, and a dozen or so more on e-library hold. As to the Strand excursion and likely purchases, cheap though they'll be, sssh--please don't tell my wife. She's been on a get-rid-of-books kick for some time, and finds my resistance exasperating. She's got reason on her side. In a few years when I retire we'll be moving, and no doubt our next place will be smaller than the outrageously big Queens floor-through where we've lived for many years. Teresa figures we might as well start downsizing now, and in fact we have given away or sold plenty of books over the last few years, but yes I admit I've negated any progress by continuing to buy--not nearly at the rate I used to but still. Well. While the great majority of my reading is library books, some books I just want to have forever on our shelves. So, yeah, don't tell her, but a few more are coming home with me shortly.

The other secret concerns my current writing project. My second novel. Or should I say my third? After slowly plowing forward on a novel for eight or nine years, about a year ago I found myself much more excited about an altogether different idea. After bouncing back and forth between the two for the last year or so, I've now fully committed to the newer project and officially set aside what I'd long thought would end up as my second novel. So idea #3 will, if all goes well, end up as novel #2, and I couldn't be happier and, in a way, more relieved, because it represents a breaking out in a new direction for me, a refresh, which I hope the writing will reflect. I don't want to say much about this project--never a good idea with creative endeavors since who knows what might happen--but I will say this without getting specific about content. If I manage to make the book I'm trying to make, this novel will be a new take, a different angle, on dystopian fiction. Actually, and I guess this will sound either foolishly ambitious or, I don't know, pompous, this novel will be a rejoinder to the hopelessly tired, unoriginal, and deeply uncreative glut of dystopian novels with which we're endlessly bombarded nowadays. (By the way, I've aired this complaint before on Read Red. Here and here and here.) What do I mean when I dis these books, yeah why not say it, this whole genre, in this way? Without a single exception as far as I know--and no of course I haven't read them all, but I've read quite a few, and I've read about most of the rest--all these dystopias posit a future in which nothing really has changed. Yes, everything has gotten worse, much worse. But nothing basic, by which I mean the organizing principles and the human relations of the the fictive society portrayed, has shifted in any way. To put it plainly: capitalism continues. Racism rules, sexism triumphs, the rich are richer and control everything even more than they do now. And so on. There is not a single one of these dystopias--if I'm wrong please point me to it--that imagines a future in which human beings have gotten together and reorganized society in an egalitarian way. Not one novel in which, even though capitalism has wrought untold horrors, people have decided to dump the horrible system that's created such devastation (wars, plagues, ecological disaster, you name it) and cobble together a new one with which, unfettered by the one percent's destructive drive for profits, they can begin to rebuild and renew life on Earth. So yeah, that's my modest proposal: to write an alternative narrative that dares to imagine what apparently is unimaginable to most writers, locked in to bourgeois consciousness as they all seem to be. A future in which, after the horrors have ensued--because the horrors have ensued--humanity joins together to fashion a new world. I won't mention the working title of my novel, but I will say that its subtitle is: "A Dys/Utopia." Because while my version won't skip the death and destruction, it will depict the new day that follows. Yes, this will be a novel of hope.

So I read with interest Jill Lepore's recent New Yorker piece about dystopian fiction. Naturally I disagree with her basic political thrust, equating left and right, and lamenting the new dystopians' giving up on the "the liberal state." As if bourgeois democracy in this age of late-stage capitalism in decline, bourgeois democracy with all its intrinsically undemocratic features, its very basis in structural racism, its reliance on imperialist war and occupation, as if the capitalist state which exists to facilitate the theft of surplus value and to repress the working class and oppressed nations--as if the very structures created by and upholding the stinking murderous racist capitalist system--as if all this somehow constitutes a shining beacon of hope and light. Which, apparently, futurist fiction ought to be building up rather than abandoning. I'd counter that all these imagination-impaired (on this we agree) dystopians in fact do accept the status quo, completely, unquestioningly. In fact, they portray it as going on and on. They're certainly right that things will get worse and worse if it does. But because their fiction is imbued with bourgeois ideology they can't imagine a different turn in the future. A whole new way of structuring society, humanity taking on the revolutionary socialist project of reconstruction and renewal, is beyond their creative capacity. They can only see things getting worse, because they can't imagine that humanity is capable of something better.

Lepore does make some good points about dystopian novels, especially toward the end of her piece:
Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. [my bold] It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more.
In my view, the alternative to despair is indeed imagining a better future. We'll make one by tearing down this system that's driven the planet, and 99% of its people, to the brink of destruction. My book will be fiction. I can only do my best to imagine how it all will happen, and no doubt most of what I imagine won't turn out to even resemble how it actually goes down. But go down it will. I aspire to contribute my modest bit to a literature of hope as we head forward.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Turn the guns around!

I just read a really really good book but I'm going to do it a disservice. I'm going to post some comments about it that aren't as fully thought through or comprehensive as they should be, some notes that don't rise to the level of a full-fledged review. Not because it doesn't deserve better--it does--but because of time constraints. Better to say something quickly, I decided, then nothing at all for who knows how long. So to my comrade John Catalinotto, author of the terrific new book Turn the Guns Around: Mutinies, Soldier Revolts and Revolutions, my apologies for the short shrift. To the rest of you, here's an even shorter version of my brief comments to follow: 

Read this book.
Why? For simple reasons.

First, it tells a story that very few people know. Second, this story is beyond relevant for anyone who is or wants to be engaged in the current wave of people's struggle--the resistance movement as it's now being called. There are rich lessons to be found in these pages. Third, because it will boost your morale--and who doesn't need that at this juncture?

Turn the Guns Around is mostly a history of  GI resistance during the U.S. war against Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s. Its focus is the work of the American Servicemen's Union and the ASU's newspaper The Bond. Catalinotto was deeply involved in both the organizing and the newspapering, so this is a tale from the inside, with an insider's feel for the nuance and complexity but also an analyst's perspective on the big picture. The book delivers both ways. There are page-turning day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour depictions of key cases when active-duty soldiers and sailors defied the brass, refusing orders, refusing to deploy, refusing to fight. Interspersed throughout are what felt to me like the pumping heart of the book: dozens of letters from GIs published in the Bond. It all feels fresh, immediate, as if it happened yesterday instead of 50 years ago. 

Alongside the ASU's overall story, there are several chapters that shift and broaden the focus. These chapters are about the Paris Commune; the Bolshevik Revolution; and the revolution in Portugal with its connection to the national liberation of Angola, Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau. In each case, Catalinotto shows how the the role of soldiers and sailors was a pivot point, how the moment they threw in their lot with the revolutionary forces of the workers, peasants and oppressed was central.

Which shows what he's really up to with this book. This is not just a fascinating story of brave, heroic people, although it is certainly that. This is a political orientation. And a reminder. Overwhelming as the enemy's forces can seem with all their state power and military might, our side--the side of the workers and oppressed, whose ranks include all those hundreds of thousands of enlisted personnel--is capable of overthrowing them. We've done it before. We'll do it again.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

What I know about Naples

Last autumn I read five novels set in or around Naples, Italy, or with characters from the Naples region who move to cities northward in the period of the 1960s and 70s. After reading these five novels, here's what I now know about Naples: a little bit more than what I knew before. Before, I knew very little indeed other than that Naples is a city near Mount Vesuvius and the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. In fact, I admit that my ignorance about Italy overall, especially its modern history, was vast.

I now know at least a little about Naples in the post-World-War-II period, about the class struggle, about the fascists and the mafia, about the student movement, about women's roles. I now know that Naples was and remains Italy's poorest city, that Naples is a downtrodden place of oppression and exploitation and misery. I've learned that this city and its people, even though they're in Europe, are generally considered part of the Global South.

I'm still a Naples ignoramus, but maybe a teensy bit less so, having read the four novels of the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante, and another book not long after. I liked the Ferrante novels. I loved the other book, got much more out of it, and in my opinion it is much more important.

As to Ferrante novels: My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child. I'd resisted the endless waves of huzzahs, the stream of recommendations from friends, everyone asking if I'd read them. For some reason I thought I'd tried the first one and not liked it. Finally I thought what the hell, let me see what all the fuss is about, let me give it another chance, and I began the first novel. It turned out that I had not ever started it--guess I mixed it up with some other book--and I did like it and kept reading. Liked it enough that I went right on to the next one, and then the next and the last. Not one after the other. I read some other books in between. I wasn't so consumed with the story of Lenu and Lila that I had to plunge through the whole thing one two three four. But I was interested enough, and liked the books enough, to keep coming back until ultimately I finished the series.

I liked these novels. I did not love them, not even close.

The depiction of women's roles and of the changing society in the decades as they pass are most compelling. The portrayal of the two women's friendship pulled me along. The writing is not, as many have noted, anything dazzling, but it works. Overall, then, I enjoyed the read, well enough to keep going, and that is saying something as these days I never push myself through a book if I'm not liking it. So yeah, I liked Ferrante's books. Why didn't I love them? Well, one thing of note is that from my vantage point now, three months on, I remember very little of the story beyond its broad framework. I never find myself thinking about the characters and their lives. No scenes pop up in my mind. Looking back, I realize that the books didn't make me feel very much. I never shed a tear. And now, three months on, thinking about them evokes no emotion.

I was not, in other words, consumed. I was not swept up. I was not moved. I was not changed. There's just something about these books that falls short. If pressed, I'd say it's that they are ultimately a petit-bourgeois project. Sure, Ferrante shows the existence of classes, she includes material about the effects of poverty and exploitation, but there's an as-if quality, a distance, to it all. You can say these are class-conscious books--and for readers used to the way U.S. literature is dominated by an upper- and middle-class sensibility, there is I suppose something refreshing in this, in the mere recognition and depiction of working-class lives--but they are nevertheless imbued with bourgeois consciousness. Perhaps that's why I did not come away from these novels deeply affected by the visceral narrative of female friendship that all the critical acclaim proclaims them to be.

On the other hand. Speaking of Naples and environs. Moved, thrilled, swept away, envigorated, revived--and yes, thinking about the book still calls up these feelings three months later--this is how I felt about a magnificent book only recently available in English translation many years after its original Italian publication, and even this English version only available at some effort on order from Australia. The book is Vogliamo Tutto-The Novel of Italy's Hot Autumn by Nanni Balestrini.
The title translates as "We Want It All" or "We Want Everything" and it comes from a workers' chant during the great strike against Fiat in Torino in 1969. The novel pulls you deep into that struggle, but not before acquainting you with the conditions that drove so many young workers out of Naples to the north to seek factory work. The desperation, the hunger, the nothing that they had (and in Naples still have). The reader feels it, and is pulled along, fast and angry, into the maelstrom that surges into the streets.

That visceral gut slap missing in Ferrante's work? Well, hot damn, here it is in Balestrini's. Now here's a funny thing. Both Balestrini's and much of Ferrante's books are set in the period of the 60s and 70s, when all hell was breaking loose in Italy, both student and worker struggle. Ferrante doesn't ignore it, it's there in a way, but it's not integral, it isn't fundamental to the characters or story. With Balestrini, however, the struggle is the story. Is it any wonder Vogliamo Tutto is the book that speaks to me?

Especially in these hard times. In the U.S. today we face what can seem a deeply daunting challenge, to build the resistance movement, to organize and fight back and smash the racist, anti-worker, pro-war regime now in power. This is a book to read to revive your spirits and rev your energy back up for this vital fight.