Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Walter Mosely: Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned

If you've read more than one novel by Walter Mosley, you know that his narrative artistry is not bound to any one genre despite his reputation for crime fiction with his long time series featuring Easy Rawlins and a newer series featuring Leonid McGill. His official Web site is not update, but it will draw your attention to the book The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey (2011). Ptolemy Grey is a 91 year old who lives  alone, afraid to leave his apartment, losing his mind from neglect and inactivity. He meets 17 year old Robyn at the funeral of his nephew who was killed in a drive by shooting. Between the care he receives from Robyn, a dangerous experimental drug, and his desire to find out who killed his nephew, Ptolemy Grey rediscovers a purpose to his life--it isn't over yet. Mosley's 91 year old character allows the author to weave threads of African American history into the narrative.  His 2004 novel, The Man in the Basement, features another character who lives in neglect, although it is self imposed. Living in the family house, which he no longer maintains, fired from his job, reading science fiction, and drinking Seagrams, Charles Blakey's disintegrating life takes a turn when a white man, clearly a wealthy white man used to having his own way, shows up asking to rent Blakey's basement. The rent will save the house, but it won't necessarily save Blakey. He becomes wrapped up in his new occupant's expiation or exorcism of guilt, but not necessarily finding his own redemption in the process. Both this novel and the Ptolemy Grey novel have elements of surrealism as well as mystery.

Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned was published in 1998. While it has elements of the hard boiled, it is not a novel about crime or a mystery. It is a story about living beyond mere survival. As is to be expected from Mosley, it is a textured and nuanced story of living in an African American community. In these stories, the community is in Los Angeles. In these stories, Mosley features the character Socrates Fortlow, also known as Socco. As a reckless young man, he killed a man and raped and killed a woman for which he spent 27 years in an Indiana prison. Fortlow is 58 years old. Although he looks older than his years, he remains strong with a powerful vein of violence still simmering within him. He takes full responsibility for his crimes and is determined to live his life remembering what he has done. It is too simple to say that he hopes to make up for the wrong he has done with good, but he lives his life consciously, making choices that correct wrongs and make the lives of those important to him better.

The story of his crime, his time in prison, and the trajectory of his life following his release is revealed throughout the stories. Fortlow is always thinking about what it means to be a man, and more particularly what it means to be a black man, the honor of work, the necessity of honoring those you love, respecting yourself so that you can treat others with the respect they deserve. He is a man who is always thinking and considering. In the first story, Fortlow catches a young boy who has killed a neighbor's rooster. Fortlow tells the boy, that he has killed Socrates' friend. He makes the boy pluck the rooster, which Fortlow then cooks along with other dishes to create a small feast that he shares with the boy. Through force of personality and the gift of a full stomach, Fortlow coaxes the boy into telling his history. Over several stories, Fortlow becomes a mentor and protector to the boy. This is just one of the story lines, however.

Socrates doesn't let himself or others off easily. He calls them to account, but not without examining his own motivation for doing so.

Mosley's books are complex and challenging. His characters, always part of a tightly knit community in a carefully constructed and described neighborhood, have pasts through which they are working, presents to survive, and futures that may or may not materialize. Certainly good and compelling reading, Mosley's novels and stories keep you thinking and asking questions. He is a master at his craft.

Mosley has more than 30 works of fiction waiting out there for a lucky new reader to discover--so get to work!

Many thanks to my brother who gave me the two Mosley books that I've read most recently. I can't think of a better gift!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kafka: The Man Who Disappeared

Translated by Richie Robinson.

The Man Who Disappeared (also known as America) is unfinished. It is one of Kafka's earlier writings and although dark, has some humor and even slapstick elements to it. This edition comes with "fragments," a few segments that are not connected up in an obvious way with the main body of the novel. They give the impression that the novel might go on indefinitely, one dealing with Karl's servitude to Brunelda and the other about the great theater of Oklahama (sic) and his efforts to gain employment with this great enterprise. America does not seem to be an unsuitable title, as the novel  as much about poor Karl Rossman as it is about the country of America, which Rossman travels across. At least it is Kafka's vision of America. The errors in geography and spelling seem as though they could be intentional, creating a clearly fictional or fantastic ambiance, as they could be errors. Although one wonders why, if Kafka was concerned about accuracy, he couldn't easily look up the geographical distance between Boston and New York (in the novel they are adjacent connected by a bridge), or the correct spelling of Oklahoma.

Poor Karl Rossman's story is something of a Pinnochio tale except that Rossman's moral sense is strong--in fact his moral sense is much stronger than that of anyone with whom he comes into contact. He knows right from wrong, and in fact exhibits common sense, industry, intelligence, drive, trustworthiness, and resilience. Bombarded with the haphazard, unpredictable and irrational whims of the Americans he encounters, Karl has little chance of thriving. He moves from expecting people to have rational and logical responses to situations and details, to having little hope that those with whom he interacts will behave in a reasonable manner.

Karl first was sent to America as a young boy because of his run in with a 35-year-old woman. Her seduction of him left her pregnant and Karl in trouble. The women in The Man Who Disappeared are not unanimously trouble, but are  consistently troublesome for Karl. They are sexually promiscuous, powerful, demanding, and spoiled. Two women do come to Karl's rescue, but in they end they fail him. The chief cook at the Hotel Occidental, takes him in, gets him a job, and introduces him to her protégé who becomes Karl's close friend. They are unable to save him when he is wrongfully accused of misconduct at the hotel and unceremoniously fired from his position. In fact, most of the Americans Karl encounters are undisciplined, driven by emotion rather than reason, scheming or lazy, and criminal.

Regardless of Karl's sincerity, desire to please, respect, and hard work, he is consistently dragged down. After his first good fortune of being recognized and taken in by his wealthy but idiosyncratic uncle, he is not long after completely rejected by him because he leaves to spend the night with one of his uncle's friends despite the uncle's reluctance to have their routine interrupted. The house he visits is one with unfinished halls, staircases unnavigable because of darkness, twists and turns that lead the uninitiated wanderer astray. People seem to take liberties with Karl, they stand too close, their hands are all over him, he is treated something like a small child or worse yet, a toy. Karl is vaguely aware that the way he is treated is inappropriate but in the early days of his American sojourn chooses to think the best of most people.

After leaving his uncle's care, Karl runs into two rascals, an Irishman and a Frenchman, who are happy to keep Karl with them to pay for their meals and lodgings. It is the chief cook at the Hotel Occidental that helps Karl escape from these two ne'er do wells. Karl lost faith in them when he realized that they had gone through his things and lost the one photograph he had of his parents.

It is these two rascals that cause him trouble at the hotel leading to his dismissal, and that then take him captive and force him into servitude. The antics of these two men (also reminiscent of the rascals that lead Pinnochio astray) are not unlike unsavory but comic characters of Dickens, or the absurdist antics of, to be anachronistic, a Samuel Beckett play or characters found in Alice in Wonderland. One scene features a chaotic political demonstration that reminded me of both the political scenes from the Pickwick Papers and generally, Dickens' description of the United States in Martin Chuzzlewit.

The novel ends, not including the fragments, with Karl ingeniously putting together a breakfast of left over scraps for his demanding but madly delusional captors. As they enjoy the food he has scavanged for them, he is rewarded with a handful of biscuits.

Karl, unlike the Americans, always does his utmost. He answers questions fully and succinctly to a suprising detail. He is perceptive and knows what is futile and what is not. He becomes less naive as the novel progresses. His difficulties make him wiser and more cautious. In one of the fragments, his captors seem to have disappeared but Karl is still responsible for their employer/lover Brunelda. In the fragment, Karl is transporting the very large Brunelda who is hiding beneath a blanket, in a hand pulled carriage. Karl is able to follow a very intricate path to their destination. "He went very cautiously; before turning a corner he would scrutinize the next street . . . if he foresaw what could be a disagreeable encounter he would wait till it could be avoided or would even choose a route through a quite different street. Even then, as he had carefully studied all the possible routes in advance, he never ran the risk of making a substantial detour" (192). So despite his distaste for Brunelda and his involuntary servitude, Karl puts his all into the task.

Because Karl's story is unfinished we can't know what lessons there are to be learned from the culmination of his life events. In the introduction there is some suggestion that Karl would meet his end through execution, innocently, but gently (xxii). It is certainly a cautionary tale for the would-be immigrant, and perhaps also a joke at the expense of the uncivilized American. For my part, I'd like to think that Karl achieves the "American dream," and finds a place to call home, a good book, a good friend, and food on the table.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Giersbach on O'Reilly and Lincoln

After a long hiatus, the review is pleased to post this insightful look at Bill O'Reilly's book on Lincoln. Inadvertently it may be good timing, coinciding with a new film on Lincoln, and following not too far on the heals of that great biopic, "Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter." Many thanks to Mr. Giersbach. If you enjoy his writing, please visit his Web site Allotropic Lucubrations to find and read his short fiction.
Score: Lincoln Loses, So Does O’Reilly

Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 was as shocking as President Kennedy’s almost a century later, but reflected a country still polarized by war.  Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard (2011) unrolls the drama leading up to John Wilkes Booth’s infamous act while unveiling the band of amateur conspirators.  In fact, history classes tend to skip over the widespread rabid hatred of Lincoln and the motley group that conspired to murder the President.  Perhaps it’s good to be reminded of such things.  O’Reilly more recently wrote Killing Kennedy (2012), so let’s hope there are no more presidential assassinations.

But how true is the fictionalized treatment?  A seven-page index offers no sources, nor does the prologue, but O’Reilly fills his work with interior thoughts and imaginary conversations the way an éclair is puffed up with cream filling: light and airy, but not nutritionally good.  This is history for non-history buffs, delivering a quick back story of the Civil War generals and their final battles, the political animosities blocking the generosity of our “greatest President,” the nationwide chase to find the assassin, and the tragic aftermath of hanging a possibly innocent Southern woman sympathizer.  It’s a fast read and will deliver information you never learned in school.

This is not a bad book, but somewhat thin after wading through Drew Gilpin Faust** and Bruce Catton.*  By the middle of June, the book has spent 36 weeks on The New York Times list and is in fourth place among non-fiction works.  This may say more about American reading tastes and Bill O'Reilly's popularity among a certain demographic than it being an original contribution to history.

Historical novels are an enchanting genre that lead readers into the dark corridors of the past.  We walk unseen next to characters — some we’ve heard of and some fictional — who are explorers and adventurers, romantic lovers and nefarious brigands.  Politicians are exposed, the self-righteous are quashed, and the meek inherit the earth before everyone goes home for the day.

Killing Lincoln is a non-fiction adventure set against a historical backdrop.  Can we dare imagine the tall, gaunt President walking alone through the cheering throngs at war’s end, heedless to the warnings that he might be assassinated?  Do we gasp seeing General Grant show up at the peace table in Appomattox with mud on his boots to remind the impeccably dressed General Lee how Grant was upbraided for sloppiness during the Mexican War?  Do we titter to hear the conversation between Lincoln and his wife in the closed carriage en route to Ford’s Theatre?

Killing Lincoln is populist literary drama for our times, in which the past and the present exist contemporaneous with each other.  It’s branded as “history” that really isn’t history.  The drawing-room drama of Mary Todd’s spiteful resentment and state-room drama of Lincoln casually dropping in on Secretary of War Stanton could be played out today in a soap opera or on a cable channel.

Artist and writer Douglas Coupland calls this new literary genre Translit:  “Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place.”  The contemporary reader is tossed into the past without having to leave the present.  It’s almost as if, Coupland says, one “can travel back to Victorian England — only with vaccinations, a wad of cash and a clean set of ruling-class garb.”

In this case, we’re given gripping moment-by-moment drama.  O’Reilly and his partner Dugard adopt the narrative tricks of short writing sections and quick cutting worthy of “breaking news” on CNN.

 *Bruce Catton is author of the Civil War Trilogy
**Drew Gilpin Faust is known, for among other works The Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War and Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slave Holding South in the American Civil War

Kafka: The Man Who Disappeared

Also known as America. This edition is newly translated by Ritchie Robertson. This is my first foray into Kafka in some time. The first thing that strikes me is that The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, a wonderful novel by a versatile writer, is not merely Kafkaesque, it is very much written using Kafka's techniques, maybe even an homage to Kafka. Some of these characteristics include the announcement that you are a related to an individual you seem to have met randomly and yet you are expected (you are surprised, the relative is not), a character's long, confident pronouncement seemingly out of nowhere--with no signs to the reader that the character should have that knowledge or the confidence to deliver it, unexplained attachments, and, of course, the inability to find one's way.  In The Unconsoled, Ishiguro's main character, a concert pianist, is looking for a place to practice. Try as he might, he never finds the practice room, but winds (an appropriate descriptive term) up somewhere else where people know and perhaps even expect him. At the very beginning of Ishiguro's novel, the protagonist finds out that he is related to the elderly bell hop. Kafka's main character, Karl Rossman, arrives in America via ship after having been sent away from his German home. He loses himself on board at the time of disembarkation, losing his suitcase while looking for his umbrella.  In the process, he is taken in by the surly and disgruntled "stoker," who Karl confidently helps to make a case to the Captain of the ship, despite having met him minutes earlier, for better treatment and pay. While engaging with the captain and the stoker, another man who has been waiting about, asks Karl who he is and then pronounces himself to be Karl's uncle. The uncle knows every detail of Karl's story, and despite the fact that his name does not fit Karl's recollection or logical expectations, he accepts the fact although he heart broken at having to leave the stoker.

to be serially reviewed ... 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Fox and Heti: Western Coast and How Should a Person Be

Paula Fox. The Western Coast (Norton, 2001) and Sheila Heti. How Should a Person Be: A Novel from Life (Henry Holt, 2012).

I'm back after months and months of hiatus. I hope this signals some return of energy and renewed desire to communicate at the very least, me with my blog! Both of these novels are first person narratives and at least in Sheila Heti's novel--autobiographical. But that is neither here nor there. These are both novels, and it shouldn't matter one way or the other whether they true to life since they are both written in a way to go beyond just the telling of a life. I stumbled on Western Coast, when I was looking for Fox's News of the World, which is perennially checked out or missing from my library.  I am not sure if I liked this book or not and I wondered about it this the whole time I read it. At some point during my reading I read a quote about reading in general. Something like, what is important in reading is working through a text. Enjoying it or understanding it is secondary. It is the struggle or the working out of complexities that is central. I kept this in mind when I wasn't so sure about how I felt about it. So, I finally decided that it was sort of an innocent abroad or Alice in Wonderland kind of tale. Annie, a very young girl, has been left much too much to her own devices with an absent mother and an essentially absent (alcoholic, artist, serial marrying) father. Having had enough of living on her own and art high school, Annie heads out to California before the onset of WW II but not before the European wars had started and rumors of the plight of European Jews had begun to spread. She drives West with a chaotic woman and has plans to meet up with her merchant marine boyfriend. He is a young man, but older than she (everyone is because she is still high school age), who is one of many men who is attracted to Annie so that they can educate her--and have their way with her. Before he leaves on another ship he introduces Annie to his California acquaintances, most of whom are involved to some degree with the Communist Party. Even the people Annie meets on her own seem to have connections to the party.  So, men meet her and want her love and want to educate her. She is prone to do what people expect of her--mostly men. In the end, she leaves a very decadent and confused (Southern) California and returns to New York. When she is asked what happened, she says she was kidnapped, but got away. Part of the difficulty of this book is the grinding life that Annie lives; her naivete combined with her anger and listlessness make for an enervating mix.

As when I was reading Paula Fox's Western Coast, I had to think about whether I was liking Sheila Heti's book. I was reading it during a week when I lacked my own resiliency, and the character Sheila's inability to cope, make progress, to just do the right thing by herself or anyone else, wore on me. Yet, interspersed with her annoying self absorption were little dialogues with her best friend Margaux, and every now and then a beautiful sentence or thought would jump out of the page. Sheila, the main character, is trying to write a play and has spent her life looking for models of being to emulate--in the animate and inanimate. Her friends are artists and friends of artists, she has an abusive boyfriend, and she is unable to write her play. In the end presumably, she writes this book instead of the play.  She does this for Margaux who wants her to finish what she started even if it isn't the play (its more complicated than that but you'll have to read for yourself...). What didn't I like about this book? The intense introspection and self-absorption of it. What did I like about it? Sheila finding her way out of intense introspection and into the light of, I don't know, a clearer vision. There is excellent writing in this book, and the final chapters or segments should be read several times. I'm not sure I completely understand the two final parables, but I am looking forward to talking with Helen (my daughter who alerted me to this book) about it when I have the chance, and, perhaps, learning more.

Back to Paula Fox, I was startled when I read in Heti's book: he was just another man trying teach me something. I'm not quoting exactly, but this exact (or nearly exact) sentence and certainly this theme fills Fox's book. There are other aspects of the novel that are similar. It would be interesting to know if Heti has read this book. Hmmm. The style of writing is completely different in the two books and Fox writes for someone like me whose youth was some time ago; Heti's book is reflective of today's recently post college generation. It is set in Toronto. I kept forgetting that and thinking it was set in New York. When Sheila takes a bus from Atlantic City to Toronto, I'm convinced that she is returning to New York.  The bus trip was 14 hours, and I wondered who the writer thought she was fooling. The bus trip from Atlantic City couldn't be much more than an hour or two. Anyway, Toronto, not New York (although it does figure into the novel).

Read these books and tell me what you think!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Year M

The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium. Little, Brown & Company, 2000.

A good straight forward overview that sets a context for the years surrounding the year M (1000). Lacey and Danziger use a manuscript of the Julius Work Calendar for a month by month look at the life in Anglo-Saxon England. It was written in anticipation of the 2nd millennium, and ends on the one hand with a jab at nostalgia and on the other with an endorsement of the hard work, cooperation, and tolerance that was necessary for survival at the time of the first millennium. The authors indirectly suggest that we should keep these qualities in mind as we go forward into the current millennium without knowing about the degree of our current lack of cooperation and tolerance in the second decade of the second millennium. Broadly speaking, the authors look at religion and the transition to Christianity, technology and craftsmanship, agriculture, trade, commerce, and war.

The History of Coffee Houses in England

Ellis, Aytoun. The Penny Universities: A History of Coffee Houses. London: Secker & Warburg, 1956. 

The coffee houses of England served multiple purposes, and this book is written to recognize their contributions and to observe three hundred years of coffee house history. Although written in many ways like a catalog, which makes progress through its pages a bit tedious, the book's author, Ellis, devotes each chapter to a specific aspect of the coffee house. Much of the history is documented although some of it is based on historical legend. From the origins of the first intoxicating sip of coffee in England, the coffee houses served as an early alternative to too much beer--the drink of choice that was destroying the health and well being of many in England. In its early days, the coffee house was open to (primarily) men from all walks of life--the poor mingling with the rich. Coffee Houses served as a safe haven for political discussion, became centers for the exchange of ideas and for civil debate--Dryden held court at a coffee house were the homes for the earliest journals--Addison and Steele were among those who brought their publications to life through coffee house debate (also see Habermas's Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere on the role of coffee houses and the rise of the early journal and development of cultural critique). Alcohol slowly found its way back into the coffee shop as did the charlatan in the form of quacks and highway men, but in our current times, the coffee house is a solid fixture as a community space conducive to both those seeking solitude and those preferring society.

If you have any doubt about the important cultural role of the coffee shop, find this book in a library near you (I came across this browsing the DA's at Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania).

Sunday, March 18, 2012

How it All Began

Lively, Penelope. How it All Began. NY:Viking, 2012.

Lively's latest novel picks up a theme explored in one of her recent novels, Consequences--that is, the importance of a random event or action to shape the future course of multiple lives. The novel opens with Charlotte, an older but still very active woman, coming to consciousness after having been mugged and having her purse stolen. Because of her injuries she must move in with her married daughter, who in turn must cancel her plans to accompany her employer on a speaking engagement. Because of her cancellation, her employer asks his niece to accompany him. The niece sends a text to the married man she is having a casual affair with which is seen by his wife. The niece, in addition, neglects to bring tickets for her uncle's trip or the manuscript from which he plans to speak leading to his deep humiliation. Not all of the fall out from Charlotte's accident is negative but it is disruptive and life changing.

This novel, while exploring a weighty idea is also very funny. The niece's married man is a selfish, hapless man who is in the habit of having his cake and eating it too. The uncle/employer is a well known academic whose glory days are behind him. He is hopelessly out of touch with current scholarship but blithely carries on writing his memoirs and enjoying the self-serving attentions of a young disciple.  Lively also takes a stab at investment bankers and their easy way with other people's money.  Some of the characters move on, and some consider moving on but step back.

The narrator steps into the story as the novel concludes to consider the far reaching effects of the random actions of Charlotte's mugger, concluding simply that no man is an island.

If you haven't read any Penelope Lively novels, you might consider picking up Cleopatra's Sister, City of the Mind, and, most especially, Passing On.

Proust and the Squid

Wolf, Maryanne. Proust and the Squid: the Story and Science of the Reading Brain. London: Icon Books, 2008.

Wolf provides a brief history of the shift from oral culture to written culture and traces the development of written language and reading. She explains the evidence supporting the adaptability of the human brain, how it has changed to enable reading, and how it differs for different writing systems, for instance, the different parts of the brain used for Chinese characters or Japanese kanji, for alphabets, and for syllabaries. Wolf also shows how complex and advanced the reading process is, pointing out that we expect children to learn in 2000 days, something that took 2000 years to develop. Because Wolf is a reading specialist, she also describes successful systems for teaching reading both to new readers and to readers who have fallen behind or have difficulty with the reading process. Wolf also devotes a section of the book to dyslexia and its varieties; the history of those with dyslexia, who often turn out to be among the more creative members of society.

In answer to Socrates' concern over the loss of memory and the over-reliance on and faith in words frozen in an unfixed form to the page, Wolf shows that the the shift to writing and reading freed the brain up for deeper and more critical thought.

Wolf considers how the brain will continue to adapt as our habits of reading change to focus on the shorter bits of information often turned to on the Web and the disruption of attention and focus through multitasking that often accompanies work on the computer as readers shift from the printed page to the screen. Wolf writes, "Ultimately, the questions Socrates raised for Athenian youth apply equally to our own. Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself?" and she asks,  "[W]hat would be lost to us if we replaced the skills honed by the reading brain with those now being formed in our new generation of 'digital natives,' who sit and read transfixed before a screen?" (221).

She concludes that, "In the transmission of knowledge the children and teachers of the future should not be faced with a choice between books and screens, between newspapers and capsuled versions of the news on the Internet, or between print and other media. Our transition generation has an opportunity, if we seize it, to pursue and use our most reflective capacities, to use everything at our disposal to prepare for the formation of what will come next. ....Many of our children code-switch between two or more oral languages, and we can teach them also to switch between different presentations of written language and different modes of analysis" (229).

An interesting book with much to consider for readers, teachers of reading, librarians and other professionals working with and helping to develop readers, and lastly,  but in no way least, parents who will be raising readers.  

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

Bronsky, Alina. The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine. New York: Europa Editions, 2011. Translated from the German by Tim Mohr.

Bronsky's novel takes place somewhere in Russia in the years leading up to and following the fall of the Soviet Union. Rosalinda and her husband Klalganow are of Tartar descent. Kalganow, who embraces the Soviet concept of the sameness of all people, chooses to disregard his Tartar past, while Rosalinda continues to embrace what she remembers of the Tartar language and food. Rosalinda calls her daughter by her Tartar name Sulfia, while Kalganow calls her Sonja. The novel opens with Sulfia telling her mother that she has become pregnant after dreaming of a man. Rosalinda, who narrates the novel, immediately sets about to abort the child. This sets the tone for the novel as Rosalinda compulsively takes charge of everything and everyone, most prominently her daughter and granddaughter, Aminat. Rosa excels at whatever she puts her mind to, but she is woefully unaware of the needs, desires, and feelings of those around her. Having decided that Sulfia is stupid and ugly she trusts her with nothing, including Aminat. Sulfia grows up cowed by her mother until she finally breaks away, not without trial and error, and finally finds herself successfully married, employed, and with a growing family. When she and her Jewish husband and in-laws decide to move to Israel, Rosa, this time inadvertently, disrupts the process throwing Sulfia's and Aminat's lives into tatters. As determined as ever, Rosa proceeds to do what she sees proper to repair the situation in ways that are shocking and disastrous.

Bronsky's novel is not just a comic story of a family in chaos and turmoil, perhaps mirroring the chaos in Russia at the time of the fall of the Soviet Union, but it is also a tragic story of a Russian woman who works within a system of deprivation and desperation to achieve what she considers to be success for herself and her family. She uses everything within her grasp to achieve her ends, whether it is her own good looks or the desires of a pedophile. She is at the same time cavalier and fiercely protective of her loved ones and she can't imagine that what she wants isn't best for them, or ultimately what they will want. 

I was both put off and drawn to this novel. While one may never learn to like Rosalinda, one can understand her and see her personality and actions as a result of her environment just as Sulfia and Aminat are shaped by their life under the care and direction of Rosalinda.

When I had the opportunity to visit my daughter while she was living in Krasnoyarsk in (what I would call but is perhaps inaccurate) south central SIberia, We spent an evening with a 70+ year old woman who worked full time as a pathologist at the local hospital in Mariinsk (Марии́нск). She lived with her son and daughter-in-law and young grandchild in, what I found to be typical, a one bedroom apartment. Outside the apartment, this hardworking grandmother had an immaculate and productive garden. I asked how she worked, kept the household, and maintained this garden, she answered me that this was what all Russian women had to do. She invited my daughter and I to have dinner with her as long as my daughter made the salad and I cooked the fish. When we saw the fish we found it be the size of the table. I somewhat ashamedly said that I wasn't particularly skilled at cooking fish and I had no idea how to approach a fish this size. She gave up on both of us and cooked us a very simple but very nice meal that I will never forget. The next day I asked her about the fish and she said she was up all night cutting it up and cooking it bit by bit. Russian woman--practicality and endurance combined with hospitality and kindness.

I will look forward to reading Alina Bronsky's first book, Broken Glass Park (2010).

Look for Alina Bronsky's books at your favorite bookstore or library. My favorite libraries are the Free Library of Philadelphia and the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library at the University of Pennsylvania.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pity the Billionaire

Thomas Frank. Pity the Billionaire: the Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right. New York: Henry Holt, 2012

Reviewed by T. Hatch

Columnist, author, and former editor of the Baffler Thomas Frank asks the question, in his latest book Pity the Billionaire, how is it possible that the political Right thrived in the 2010 elections despite the economic meltdown of 2008? Why then were the trajectories of the 1932 and 2008 elections so different?  One would think that the “newest Right” should have been as discredited as Herbert Hoover with no chance to win an election anytime soon. Yet, alas, they did.

Frank argues that the “newest Right” is something like a bunch of zombies in a cheesy Hollywood movie;  the undead have amazing recuperative powers. In early 2009 the chattering class was presiding over the funeral of the Republican Party.  By August of that year the Democrats were back on their heels playing defense at town hall meetings where health care reform was the topic.  By 2010 the Democrats were in full retreat suffering a historically devastating defeat in the midterm elections. “If you had brought the world’s teenaged anarchists together in some great international congress and asked them to design an ideal crisis they could not have discredited market-based civilization more completely than did the crash of 2008” (p.26).  Pity the Billionaire seeks to answer the question of why this counter-intuitive conservative resurgence in 2010 could have taken place.

The real genius of the newest Right has been to unleash the “cynical idealism of billionaire America” (p.44) on a country ready for its cold embrace.  The brilliance of equating “we the people” with derivatives traders and convincing the victims of the great recession that not only would it be wrong and a form of “class warfare” to criticize investment bankers, but that they should show some sympathy for the beleaguered billionaire class, is not to be underestimated.  This peculiar form of billionaire inspired populism maintains that markets are democratic systems with consumers and investors making their desires known through the naturally recurring phenomenon of price auction theory.  Whereas market populism used to be the domain of the wealthy, now it is for the masses.

A significant part of Pity the Billionaire is basically an ethnography of the Tea Party Movement. The Tea Party is little more than the petit bourgeois white supremacist wing of the Republican Party. With their own cable news channel as a megaphone,  and a corporate media that could not get enough of their eccentric act, they were effective in framing the issue as choice between a small business utopia and a government imposed socialism.  Frank, who has read C. Wright Mills carefully, well understands that small business is useful to big business as a mascot for the ideology of utopian capitalism. Using small business folklore as the basis for a populist front is the preferred methodology of the corporate robber barons.  In this respect the top down faux populism of the Tea Party represents this triumph of three decades of neoliberal ideology.

Whereas the top down construction of a phony populism was successful, the Obama administration’s efforts at bailing out the economy from on high, at the expense of multitude, were politically less so.  F.D.R. worked to save and restructure the economy from the bottom up.  Rather than placing itself at the forefront of the populist anger against Wall Street (breaking up the banks, stopping the foreclosures, jailing the criminals etc.) the Obama administration made itself the embodiment of cronyism, i.e., instead of another F.D.R. we got Clinton II.  Not only was catering to Wall Street an act of moral cowardice it was a huge tactical error which allowed the Right to gather itself and quickly counterattack.

The delusions of the Right are situated in the shibboleth of an unfettered free market. However, Obama and the modern Democratic Party are equally delusional. The Democrats cognitive break with reality is not based on economics but emanates from the world of political science according to Frank.  Their collective hallucination manifests itself in a “cult of centrism and compromise.” Like another tall gaunt politician of yesteryear, Obama must have imagined himself waving a piece of paper in the air proclaiming, “We have bi-partisan consensus in our time!” Frank states that “President Obama tries to stay on the good side of companies like Goldman Sachs and BP even as he desperately drives his hook-and-ladder around a world they have set on fire.” (p. 136) Fearful that he might be seen as a radical, Obama has dutifully carried the water for Wall Street.

Another explanation for the politically inexplicable may be that we were cheated out of seeing the full effects of the train wreck. The banking industry did not suffer the consequences of a collapse because the much maligned bureaucracy in Washington D.C. saved them.  The deus ex machina of the federal government saved the ungrateful lords of Wall Street. As thanks, the Right has been able to shift the blame from the scene of the crime to Washington D.C.

Find this book (and place a hold on it!) at the Free Library of Philadelphia: McN 12336742 (at about eleven branches, and checked out or on its way to a branch to be checked out.)

The Cracked Bell

Tristam Riley-Smith, The Cracked Bell: America and the Afflictions of Liberty. New York: Skyhorse Publishing, 2010

Reviewed by T. Hatch

Riley-Smith’s Cracked Bell is a breezy tour de force that at times seems like a panegyric to the “American Dream” which offers little original, or profound, in the way of insight or analysis.

Enough praise.

In the first instance the argument that the gap between the “American Dream” and the “American Crisis,” that cultural dissonance between the ideal of freedom and its more prosaic reality, which Riley-Smith cleverly analogizes with the crack in the Liberty Bell, is less than compelling. What are we talking about?  The attempt to reconcile the divergence between nationalist ideology and everyday life is present in many societies.  Implicit in Riley-Smith’s argument is the idea of American exceptionalism.  What exactly is unique to the Americans then? Yes, the American consumer is primus inter pares among the consumers of the world but only by virtue of a convergence of accidental historical circumstances.  Is the American public irrationally enamored of their beloved military? Clearly, yes they are. But, given the opportunity everybody loves a parade.  It’s just that Americans have had the ability to spend more lavishly on theirs. It is hardly noteworthy then that Americans are overweight, under-educated, adore successful imperialism, and spend too much time and money at Walmart.

Noteworthy however are the various instances of an empirical misreading of history which betray a right-of-center political bias. Due to the confines of brevity I will restrict myself to  three.
Riley-Smith writes that in the wake of Hurricane Katrina “A vengeful mob had taken over the Big Easy within hours of the thin veneer of law and order being removed.” (p.70)  This “mob” in his view was made up of the angry and frustrated armed consumers of New Orleans’ underclass. They were also irrational insofar as “Few of the looters had homes in which to install the commodities and there was no electricity to power them. This was postmodern shopping, deconstructed to the point where it became a form of performance art – an end in itself” (p.70).

How about the “looters” who were taking bottled water and food from closed and abandoned stores merely for survival?  What kind of postmodernist spectacle was this?  And this talk of the “mob” is very much in keeping with the reporting  by the corporate media in the immediate aftermath of Katrina.  Ironically there is no mention of the “gangs” of armed whites making an exit from the city impossible or the police violence against unarmed Blacks.  I feel that these offensive remarks by Riley-Smith should be immediately treated with both Michael Eric Dyson’s Come Hell and High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster and Spike Lee’s documentary film When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts.   The neglect and overt hostility with which the Black population of New Orleans was treated in the wake of Katrina was clearly much more about race than missed shopping opportunities; this seems to have alluded Riley-Smith.

On the subject of political correctness Riley-Smith argues that it came about as an attempt to counter the “excesses” of racism, sexism, and homophobia et cetera. He opines that “However, the phenomenon tends to reinforce these varieties of intolerance and introduces a new form of illiberal behavior that suppresses the public expression of views that are deemed beyond the pale” (p.229). Riley-Smith is certainly not alone in this type of irresponsible and risibly paranoid palaver which has continued more or less unabated for about twenty years now.

Is there a ministry of political correctness somewhere enforcing its dictates on those who are innocently engaged in a moderate and thoughtful discourse of racist, sexist, and anti-gay bigotry? Just like the mythical gerbils in hospital emergency rooms and soldiers returning home from Vietnam to be spat upon by anti-war protestors, nobody has ever met an actual victim of political correctness.  Yet there are legions of actual victims of racism, sexism, and anti-gay bigotry making Riley-Smith’s false equivalency that much more pernicious.

As if to demonstrate that there are multiple ways to read history, Riley-Smith holds out Larry Sommers and his asinine comments about the inability of women to perform mathematics and engineering at a high level, reflecting something more than gender discrimination, as an example of left-wing intolerance. Ah, Larry the lefty. When he is not out marching in a May Day parade or organizing a general strike he’s practicing that brand of left-wing intolerance which makes any revolutionary proud.

As ridiculous as all of this is, Riley-Smith’s take on the American Empire - or if there actually is an empire - stands out as the most absurd part of this deeply flawed book.  To examine the nature of U.S. imperialism what better place to start than the American Enterprise Institute.  The AEI, which is widely regarded as the headquarters for the neoconservatives, is a dispassionate enough spot in Riley-Smith’s judgment to get at the essence of U.S. militarism.  As evidence that there is not in fact an American Empire Riley-Smith sites neocon Robert Kagan.  He identifies him as merely from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and neglects to mention his Skull and Bones affiliation or his connections to numerous publications including the Weekly Standard and Commentary.  Nor does he let the reader know that as a co-founder of the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) he was a signatory to the now infamous letter to President Bill Clinton in 1997 urging immediate military action against Saddam Hussein (because of the threat that the dictator’s possession of weapons of mass destruction represented to the United States).

Riley-Smith proudly avers that for an anthropologist, as far as the possible existence of the American Empire is concerned, what is primarily of interest is not whether the empire actually exists but what the Americans think about the empire. Further, he considers it a paradox that “The champion of liberty is compelled to develop an engine of war to safeguard cherished freedoms at home” (p.211).  What Riley-Smith calls a “paradox” one could label as hypocrisy;  insofar as one is interested in imperialism from the viewpoint of those who support it, why not a discussion of rape from the perspective of the rapist?

Riley-Smith, not surprisingly, concludes his analysis with a statement that Americans possess the power to overcome the American Crisis and put themselves back on the path to the American Dream.  This is a positively cheery way to describe an empire in decline.