2009/12/27

Christmas peña

Every year, exactly at midnight on December 24, the Christ child is reborn everywhere in Spain, an event that is celebrated even by atheists -- because in Spain, the atheists are all Catholics. And for all those in the Catholic tradition, whether atheists or believers or agnostics, the celebration requires smiles, giving of gifts, singing of songs and the consumption of lots of sweets and liquors. Really getting into the spirit of things, two of our local atheists (he is named for the Archangel Michael and she for the immaculate conception, but they don't let that trouble them) hosted a special peña, or flamenco song-fest, in the chilly room where we usually gather on Friday nights for a peña and (some of us) on Saturdays for lessons on flamenco guitar. But only one of us, a sturdy, mustachioed gitano Domingo, was up to vocal performance, while Rubén, our young guitar teacher, kept the flourishes and compás. Cante jondo ("deep song") explodes from the chest, whistles through the throat, cries out with an intensity that shakes the room, when someone like Domingo is al cante. The lyrics are never easy to make out, at least for us payos (non-Gypsies), but from what I could make out, the songs weren't about the Christ-child. Mostly they were extended sexist jokes, not meant to be taken seriously, with clever rhymes.

It was great fun, livelier than gatherings I remember back in the Midwest. I think that's because in the U.S. (where there are no atheists), all the Catholics, Jews and Muslims are Calvinists.

We've been lucky in Carboneras. While the rest of Spain was suffering terrible weather (record snowfall in the north, disastrous floods in other parts of Andalucía), we had sun on Christmas day, then heavy rain on Boxing Day, but sun and warmth today. As we watch the news and the TV reviews of all the disasters of this past year, we feel strange to be so privileged, and aware of how precarious anybody's well-being is. Because I wanted to hear a voice that contemplated disaster without succumbing to despair, I just read (or maybe reread -- I must have read at least a version of it in high school) this little novel: Candide, ou l'Optimisme. It was in a way reassuring to see that the world's injustices, including slavery, abuse of women, terrorism, war and theft are no worse today than back in 1759, when the young German idealist from Thunder-ten-tronckh in Westphalia began his adventures in most of the known world.

Image source: Instituto Cervantes de Múnich

2009/12/08

Spain, Morocco, Sahara and Haidar

The desperate state of Aminatu Haidar (her given name is spelled various ways), who is near death in her hunger strike in the Lanzarote (Canary Islands) airport, has driven Spain's perennial big stories -- corruption and climate change -- from the front pages. Why has such a personal act by a woman who is not a political leader or even a Spanish national got the country in such a tizzy?

She is from Western Sahara, which was a Spanish possession from 1885 until 1976. Before that it had been part of the very large, amorphous and lightly governed kingdom of Morocco, its population (sparse) of Berber, Arab and/or Moorish (Mauritanian) origin. In those 90 years of Spanish control, peninsular Spaniards migrated to administer the territory and exploit its resources, and the native population was to some degree Hispanicized -- schooled (the lucky few who got to school) in Spanish, ruled by Spanish law, some of the people converted to Catholicism. In 1956, the Kingdom of Morocco gained its independence from France and Spain, but Spain held on to Western Sahara for 20 more years against military pressure and a "Green March" (a large civilian mobilization) organized by Morocco. Mauritania and Algeria were also eager to share in the decolonized region, which was especially attractive to Algeria because of its Atlantic coast. But when Spain finally pulled out, Moroccan troops defeated Mauritania and the Algerian-backed Polisario movement and took control. The Polisario guerrillas and many civilians fled into the neighboring desert wasteland of Algeria, where they set up refugee camps which still persist. Some of those Saharans who did not flee have actively opposed Moroccan rule, some -- including, we presume, Aminetu Haidar -- by peaceful means.

All of this complicated history has left Spaniards feeling that they have some obligation to their former subjects. They are aware of the terrible conditions in the refugee camps and hold Spain to some extent responsible for accepting Moroccan occupation of Sahara. Friends of ours in Carboneras are among the many Spaniards who travel regularly to the camps and bring children to spend a summer or longer in their homes, where they have access to far better education and health services than in the Sahara. So when Haidar, a Saharan independence activist of long standing, accuses Spain of complicity with the king of Morocco because it permitted the kingdom to expel her and for her plane to land in Lanzarote, the charge resonates. She had written "Sahara" instead of "Morocco" as her homeland on the form when she was returning to El Aaiún from Spain, and that was the pretext for expelling her.

As Juan Goytisolo points out in today's El País, Western Sahara is a very different place from what it was 30 years ago. There are now many more Moroccans from the north, who have no interest in independence and have no special relation to the Spanish language or culture -- they are more likely to speak French, along with Arabic and Berber. What would probably be best for all the people there would be greater autonomy and respect for local traditions, but not independence, he argues. But such a loosening of control from Rabat seems unlikely without continued pressure of the sort that Aminetu Haidar has been exerting.

If the Moroccan authorities had simply ignored her marks on the form and let her go home, nobody would even have noticed that little act of defiance. But they decided to make an example of her and expelled her, and now she is Spain's problem. Spain needs Morocco's cooperation to control immigration and the drug trade, and is reluctant to pressure King Mohammed VI -- but Morocco also needs the good-will of Spain and of the rest of Europe. This little woman from El Aaiún has thus also created a big problem for Mohammed VI, who is too stubborn to give in but who will be under increasing pressure to allow reforms because of her actions.

2009/12/07

À la recherche de la langue perdue

Susana and I have a date in Paris in June (a reading and presentation of Above Ground), so I'm working to recover my lost facility in French, the first foreign language I ever studied. With this idea I picked up a book I'd had for a long time but had never read, where I discovered a treasure of rich, comical, coarse slang along with many sociological observations of poverty in France cerca 1987. To get all the jokes, I had frequent recourse to Le Dictionnaire, very good on argot, and then checked my pronunciation on this other terrific site, SWAC. Finally I put myself to a real test: writing my summary and comment on the book in French. Go ahead, you French speakers, read it and laugh! And if you will be so gentille, send me your corrections. Here it is: Bernard Pouchèle, L'étoile et le vagabond.

2009/11/28

Two Tales from Down Under


The first of these stories, "Tidbinbilla," was published the Spring, 1992 issue of a very good journal that has since disappeared, Central Park, edited by Stephen Paul Martin, Richard Royal (since deceased) and Eve Ensler. The other, "Hunting the Thylacine," has never before been published -- in part because of its awkward length (it'll probably take more than half an hour to read). Now I want to share them. You'll find them here, on Scribd: Thylacine Scribd

Image from Book of Thoth

2009/11/25

Voices of our informed electorate

On November 20, 2009, Sarah Palin visited Columbus, OH as part of her book signing tour for "Going Rogue." When her supporters were asked broad questions about why they why they thought she should be president, the responses were vague: She's "real." She'll "stick up for America."

2009/11/24

YouTube - Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

A very fine speech by a very good writer. I met Chimamanda (virtually) in a Zoetrope workshop, before she became famous. She's telling us something important here.
YouTube - Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story

Thanks to César for forwarding this.

2009/11/23

A Gift for the Sultan - prepub

I finally (with a lot of help from Susana) got the thing formatted and ready to share with early readers (prior to publication of the definitive version). If I haven't sent you the password yet and you want it, just ask.

Here is an image of the Archangel Michael, who has a big role in the novel. (Icon from Constantinople, now in the Basilica di San Marco, Venice.)

2009/11/20

More on how publishing is changing

If you follow Nathan's links, you may encounter something you hadn't thought before. Or confirm what you already suspected, which is also useful. Nathan Bransford - Literary Agent: This Week in Publishing

Online page proofs of "Sultan"

I've just privately posted my new novel on Scribd, with formatting and lots of illustrations which should make it more fun to read: http://www.scribd.com/doc/22810157. You'll need the password, which I can send you. Before I make it publicly available, I want to check for permission for all those images. More importantly, or equally, I hope for comments and suggestions from interested and literate readers like you. I plan to look it over once more, then probably tomorrow I'll be ready to send the password to those interested in reading about old Constantinople, Ottoman warriors, a princess, slaves, and courtiers. Just ask. And if you have any idea about publishers or illustrations, or are willing to write a blurb or review, please let me know. Here's the description: Query, "A Gift for the Sultan"

2009/11/19

Adultery and Africa

This short story of mine has just appeared in Neworld Review -- I guess it made them laugh, because they've labeled it as humor. My thanks to the cartoonist, who is not credited. You'll find the story and the cartoon here: Neworld Review: Adultery and Africa

2009/11/05

2009/11/04

Chaucer's got rhythm!

I knew there was some reason my mother named me "Geoffrey".



There are lots of other renditions on YouTube, but I like this best -- it gives you the text while they rap. This is just the prologue, but it gives us an idea how these wonderful stories could have been transmitted in an age of nearly universal illiteracy. (Thanks to Dirk for calling this to my attention.)

(To learn how it was done, check out RedYak.com. They do other stuff, too.)

2009/10/30

Bolívar was no democrat

A critical analysis of Simón Bolívar's concepts of "liberty" and "people" demonstrates that he was no democrat in modern terms. Written for a contest on the 200th anniversary of his birth (1983), until now this essay has circulated only privately among Latin American historians.
Liberty&People

2009/10/28

Mermaids

My first publication in Scribd, to try it out. If you are interested in Latin America and its literature, you may enjoy this essay. Mermaids and Other Fetishes: Images of Latin America

2009/10/26

Do-it-yourself, please

This is happening at lots of small (and probably not so small) presses: too few sales to take on new works. Maybe their advice in the second graph is right, and maybe it's the only way to go.
Marion Boyars Publishers are not accepting submissions for new titles at the moment. This may change in the New Year, 2010, but we have decided to wind down our publishing schedule for the time being, so please do not inundate us with manuscripts by email or post, as we will not be able to look at your work or respond.

If you are looking for a good publisher, we suggest that you head for a respected independent bookshop, or a quality chain bookseller, and find a book similar to the one you have in mind. If you are really original in your thinking, you can publish yourself, and send review copies to the main literary bloggers. We can assure you that good books do not go unnoticed in this world, and eventually, your work will find readers.

Fox lore

I collect odd bits like this, for easily guessed reasons: Kitsune Books

Sometimes I wonder why and how great-grandfather Adam Fuchs (who migrated to Indiana from Darmstadt-Hesse shortly after the American civil war) came by our bestial surname. Did an earlier ancestor smell bad, like a fox? Or have red hair? Or -- as I would prefer to believe -- was he (or she) especially crafty or magical, like the kitsune?

Illustration from Kobold Quarterly

2009/10/18

More on E-Books

Of all these experts gathered by the NYT, only Alan Liu had something to offer that I hadn't thought before. The reactions of horror by other commentators sound like those of other experts 3000 years ago that Liu refers to, that the invention of reading would be the end of civilization. And of course it was, of a kind of civilization, one based on oral culture. And e-books will be the end of another set of cultural habits. I think that's fine, but even if it's not, it's what's happening, so live with it! Does the Brain Like E-Books? - Room for Debate Blog - NYTimes.com

2009/10/17

Jürgen Neffe: The disembodied book

I just found this, thanks to my friend Eva's link to a page with excerpts from Herta Müller's poems and new novel -- and much else in English about contemporary German literature. Jürgen Neffe: The disembodied book - signandsight

I'm convinced that Neffe is right: a book needs an author, but an author doesn't need a "book" as we've known it up to now. That is, a bound block of paper pages. His essay has got me thinking about my own work: three novels (one just finished, two older ones never sold) and a collection of short stories (published long ago and now barely available). Why not publish these myself?

The reason I've hesitated is that I feared that, with out the imprimatur of a reputable publishing house, nobody would read them.

But -- Why can't I become the reputable publisher? This means more than just promoting my work, though it implies that too. YouTube, FaceBook, blogs, etc. can put titles and blurbs before your eyes, but that's not enough. The main thing is to build a reputation for putting out words worth reading. I've already got a start. There must already be at least two dozen people who expect that from me. Actually, if everybody who bought any of my books remembered my name, it would be a more like tens of thousands -- but I don't suppose they all do. If I can interest some of them to read my new novel or my about-to-be expanded short-story collection, and they recommend them to others, I'm off to a good start. Not riches or fame, probably, but readers and conversation partners.

I'm serious, folks. I have already exhausted my list of potential literary agents for going through the old, obsolescent route (selling to print publisher). Two are still pending (they've got the book or a sample and are supposedly considering), and I'll give them a couple of more weeks to respond. If (as I expect) they say "no", I publish myself. Not on paper ("print-on-demand" strikes me as a technology that was obsolete at birth), but on any of the emerging Internet vehicles. We don't need to let all that old publishing apparatus get between us.

2009/10/13

Dreams of the absent father

This book would be fascinating even if its author were not now president of the United States. It's the voice of a very young Obama (he's still not very old, especially for a U.S. president), just out of Harvard Law School. Obama, Barack. Dreams from my father: a story of race and inheritance. Rev. ed. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2004. It's the work of a young man, learning how to write a book and using the richest material he had, his own experience. Especially resonant for me were his pages on his community organizing experience -- frustrations and small triumphs -- in black Chicago. I too was a community organizer in a Chicago community, a few years earlier and many blocks north, in the Division Street area, then (1964-66) mostly Puerto Rican. And I recognize those feelings of the young organizer -- "Anything is possible," "Yes, we can" -- and surprise and disappointment when the people we're counting on turn out to have much more complex motives than we had imagined. And that sometimes take a long time to discover, because people are embarrassed to admit something (e.g., illiteracy, or some relationship or past event) or because they disguise their true motives under a mask of bravado or, most commonly, because they don't well understand their own impulses and anxieties.

I'm glad the author became our president. I think he's the best man possible at this time. But he would have still been impressive if he'd merely made himself a professional writer. This is a beautiful memoir, generous to those people in Chicago, to his stepfather in Indonesia, to his mother and his Kansas grandparents in Hawaii, and especially to the absent but imaginatively very present father. And it will help all of us Americans who are not black to understand a little better how a black man experiences our society.

Photos of Barack Obama, Sr., from BarackObama-net.

Publishing to the right public

[A friend and colleague has asked me, "What are your thoughts now about Fictionaut?" His are mostly critical, and he seem perplexed by the site's notion of "publishing" -- which means simply uploading to the site. Someone else may be interested in this discussion, so I'm posting my response here. I'd be interested in your reactions.]

Yes, as could only be expected, the comments [on stories in Fictionaut] are mostly gushes of praise without critique. If someone doesn't especially like a story, I suppose he just passes on without leaving a comment. So it doesn't work as a fiction workshop, which would have to be seriously critical. It's simply (for me) a place to park stories I hope somebody will look at while I seek some other, more selective publisher. Except that I (like other users) have also sometimes posted a story that has already been successful elsewhere, in hopes of impressing the crowd. "Melliflua" always seems to make a hit.

The only serious on line fiction workshop I know is Zoetrope. I used to post there often, and may return. You are not permitted to upload a story until you have earned the right by critiquing a certain number (3? 5? - I don't remember) of other stories, and there are intelligent guidelines for critiques. "Melliflua" is one of the stories I posted there, where it was spotted by a woman who edited In Posse and who asked me to submit it. That doesn't happen often, but the fact that it can happen makes the site especially attractive.

What is "publishing" today? I think we have to go back to its basic, core meaning: making publicly accessible, "publicly" implying people you don't personally know. The Fictionaut public used to be limited to registered users, but I guess it is now open to anyone with an Internet connection. Like my blog and your web page.

So today the challenge is not to get published. That is now easier than it has been for millennia, since the days when a singer of epics could gather the whole tribe around him or herself. (Something recently brought to mind a course I took in college with Albert Lord, author of Singer of Tales, about those epic singers. Lord was convinced that the Iliad and Odyssey had been composed and originally "published" in the same way as Serbian epics sung to the rhythm of the one-stringed gusle. But I digress.)

The challenge, as I started to say, is not to get published but to get read, and especially to get read by people who like the kind of things we write. That's where book-producing houses and Internet sites with critical editing ("publishers") are useful. Certain Internet sites have developed a readership larger than you are likely to find on your own, and the older-style publishers still producing paper artifacts sometimes promote their products effectively. If you publish your own stuff, you can still get it read, but it takes more effort and a lot of connections to draw attention to it.

2009/09/29

"We're Number Thirty-Seven" - Hurray!

A little musical treat celebrating the U.S.'s international standing in health care. Good for karaoke. We're No. 37 on YouTube.

Wordling

I've just Wordled this blog. It's fun and surprising to find out which words you are using most. Check out my Wordle of this blog. To Wordle your own or any other text, go to Wordle.

2009/09/27

More by Kadaré

Kadaré, Ismail. "The Great Wall." Granta 91 (2005): 147-65. Inspector Shung, inspecting the dilapidated but still imposing great wall from the inside (China side), ruminates about its history and the meaning of rumors of impending repair work before an expected assault by the nomads. On the other side, the nomak Kutluk, emissary of Timur i Leng, gallops by, scouting the wall and wishing he could pass to the other side of it to see the finery and debauchery reported there. But the wall takes on unexpected meanings for both the inspector, on the inside, and the nomad scout dying (literally) to get in.

This story intrigued me especially because of its references to Timur and to Ottoman sultan Bayezid, so prominent in my just-completed novel. But quite apart from that, it is an amusing and provocative meditation on the Great Wall that stands before each of us.

I've been reading more short stories lately, and plan to resume writing my own--it's been years since my last one. The two recent publications are older pieces now re-issued or published for the first time: "On a Page from Rilke" in Above Ground first appeared in Milk magazine some years ago, and "Adultery in Africa," soon to appear in Neworld, was originally scheduled for publication in Yellow Silk in 1993 -- but that issue never appeared. Kadaré and especially Quim Monzo, a Catalan writer I've just discovered, help stimulate the imagination.

See also my note on Ismail Kadaré's novel The Siege.

2009/09/24

Recent reading: the mishmash in our heads

"Covering a strike in the cotton mills, when I was an extreme advocate for the working class, I slept in the house of a Portuguese laborer; above his bed was a tryptich, on one panel was the Virgin Mary, on the other Shirley Temple, and in the middle Karl Marx. Crane had no inclination, as he averred, to 'sum up the universe in one impressive pellet.'"
--Edward Dahlberg on Hart Crane, in Silvers, Robert B., and Barbara Epstein, eds. The Company They Kept. Writers on Unforgettable Friendships. New York: New York Review Books, 2006.

Dahlberg's appreciation of Crane is at once merciless ("heroic bathos...pages of bedlamite shrieks... a syntactical zany") and admiring:

"But then who can be the surd adder after these fleshed locutions: 'Gongs in white surplices, beshrouded wails...' Or not pity the spirit, thirty years old, only thirty-five months from his Caribbean winding-sheet: '… snow submerges an iron year.'"

And what do you suppose a "surd adder" might be? A voiceless garden snake? Or a computer program that "adds" a "surd" (as I infer from a Google search for the phrase)? The latter seems unlikely, since Dahlberg wrote this piece in 1966. I just don't know what he meant, but that is my problem, not his. Dahlberg sees his job as not to communicate but to express his truth, too sublime for ordinary language. Or ordinary readers. Fleshed locutions indeed.

Upshot: Both are worth reading, Hart Crane for the vivid images calling on all the senses, Edward Dahlberg for his cranky, witty, and deeply cultured -- bottomless, sometimes -- references.

2009/09/14

Harvard Crimson says Holocaust denial ad published by accident - CNN.com


Harvard Crimson says Holocaust denial ad published by accident - CNN.com

Let's think about this. I'm not about to condemn something I haven't read, so I found the ad (above).

I didn't know about Smith. I found him in a Wikipedia article on holocaust denial:
In 1987, Bradley R. Smith founded a group called the Committee for Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH).[53] He is the former media director of the Institute for Historical Review.[54] In the United States, CODOH has repeatedly tried to place newspaper ads questioning whether the Holocaust happened, especially in college campus newspapers.[55] Some newspapers have accepted the ads, while others have rejected them.[56] Bradley Smith has more recently sought other avenues to promote Holocaust denial - with little success. In June 2007, the film "El Gran Tabu" ("The Great Taboo") by Bradley R. Smith was presented at the festival "Corto Creativo 07" in Mexico.[57] On September 8, 2009, The Harvard Crimson school paper ran a paid ad from Bradley R Smith. It was quickly criticized and an apology was issued from the editor, claiming it was a mistake.[58]
I think suppression of holocaust denials is unjustifiable and obviously ineffective. For those who believe such stuff, the censorship is just further confirmation of the great Jewish conspiracy, so they are stimulated to become ever more vociferous. The evidence of mass murder of Jews by the Nazis and their allies seems to me undeniable, but people are perverse and will no doubt keep denying. It seems to me a better idea for the Crimson or any of us to try to give a reasoned response to Smith's questions.

Is it true that in Crusade in Europe DDE failed to mention what later got called "the holocaust"? If so, why might he have left it out? I can think of lots of likely reasons, but there must be biographers of Eisenhower or other historians who have a more precise idea of Eisenhower's motivations for writing his book. He published it in 1948, the year he became president of Columbia University, and was already being promoted as a future presidential candidate. My guess is that he wanted to tell a war story with himself as hero, as a campaign document. His nonmention of the facts (which may not even have been widely known yet) in such a book is therefore no indication of anything regarding the 5.7 million or 6 million or however many Jews were killed. They weren't part of his story.

Smith's other question is whether we can provide "with proof" the name of anyone killed in a gas chamber in Auschwitz. Surely that information is available (though we don't know what Smith would accept as "proof"). And there is no reason to limit ourselves to Auschwitz.

In short, I think it's much better to answer the questions than to try to deny the deniers. They just keep coming back. We should use the denials as an opportunity to make more people, especially younger people, aware of the overwhelming evidence of the shoah, its dimensions, its consequences and its lessons about what happens if we don't build institutions strong enough to prevent such mass exterminations. Because unfortunately, mass exterminations have continued for religious, ethnic or political differences since then, and will just go on unless we stop them.

2009/09/11

In memoriam

On this eighth anniversary, some of you may want to read my five-day journal, begun shortly after noon of that first day, of what it was like for us, so close to Ground Zero: Attack on New York.

2009/09/08

Fighting for a new America

My Zeitgenosse Charles Degelman has just posted a comment on why Obama is having such a hard time pushing health reform: Footprints. I think his main point is right and important:
So I try not to be surprised or disappointed or to blame Obama alone. No! A waste of time. Obama receives no marching orders from The Oligarchy. He is not a pawn in a grand plan or conspiracy. No. He and Congress are – as they have been for a long, long time – part of a desperate attempt by the oligarchies – riddled with greed and stupidity – to save a system that is sliding -- very slowly, inexorably, albeit cruelly -- into oblivion.

I also believe he's right that if the reform fails, the inevitable collapse of our system will likely come sooner than it would otherwise. Though -- after Lehman Bros. and all the rest of it -- essential parts of the structures designed to enrich finance capitalists at the expense of everybody else have already collapsed. In the long run and on the macro scale, what happens to this reform may make little difference -- we are going to have to reconstruct our society on different principles, regardless. On the micro scale and in the shorter run, what happens to millions of American families, it's tremendously important. It's also a tremendously important battleground for deciding the shape of a new system.

But I'm not so sure about some of what Charlie says here. For example, "Capitalism in its imperialist stage (here since WWI), said Marx in 1848, will eventually lead to socialization." I don't find that in the Manifesto. I don't remember Marx talking about "imperialism." I don't think the term was even used as an analytic category in political economics until Hobson (1902), from whom Lenin picked it up 14 years later. Maybe it's in some other text of Marx that I've forgotten?

Also, his description of "blocs" is maybe OK but just as a starting point, rough approximation. The problem I have with that language is that "bloc" implies too much conscious intentionality, even a desire to conspire. It also implies too much internal harmony -- as though the people in each grouping didn't include cutthroat competitors and slavish minions.

As for Lenin's "Imperialism" -- it was useful politically then (1916) and maybe even up to World War II. Thereafter it becomes impossible to explain international conflicts without introducing another, wholly different set of variables, derived mainly from anthropology and psychology (Fanon, for example). Lenin was never particularly sensitive to ethnic issues (Stalin was, of course, perhaps partly because of his own minority origin, and long before either of them, Engels was acutely interested in the subject). Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, southeastern China, Bolivia, Ecuador, Sudan, ex-Yugoslavia and other places have surely been battered by the forces Lenin described, but their responses have been conditioned by ethnic and religious rituals and rage against humiliations that can only be understood within each culture.

Anyway, thanks, Charlie, for provoking these reflections. It's a worthwhile debate. It's about our future. And everybody else: Check out Charles Degelman's story in Above Ground, about how the life of one little boy in a working-class family is touched by the macro politics of the 1950s anti-Communist hysteria and the Rosenbergs' execution.

(On Zeitgenossen, see my earlier note, or better yet, the stories of Heinrich Böll.)

2009/08/22

Moveable memories

More or less by chance, Susana picked up and now we have both reread this charming, gossipy posthumous book by "Tatie," as his then-wife Hadley calls him in the book.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. 1964. Victoria, Australia: Penguin Books Australia, 1973.

I remembered so little from an earlier reading years ago, just a little of the Fitzgerald stuff, that this felt like a totally fresh experience. Finished it the day before yesterday, and I loved it. Then today I was in the Strand used-books store and saw "the restored edition" introduced and edited by EH's grandson Seán Hemingway. As the Wikipedia article makes clear, there's room for lots of controversy about the editing of EH's manuscripts, which he had never put together in a final form before -- despairing over memory loss, likely due to shock treatment he had received for other ailments -- he shot himself ("July 2, 1961, some three weeks short of his 62nd birthday" says the Wiki bio.

Whether EH would have organized the chapters in the same order as did his widow, Mary, and even if in some places she combined paragraphs from different manuscripts, it is still unmistakably (or "unmistakeably," as he would have written it) his prose. And it all feels true in Hemingway's sense. Not necessarily true factually (Ford Madox Ford may not really have smelled that bad, for example), but true emotionally, to the way Hemingway felt as he began to lose his memory about those events of 35 years earlier. (His memory was helped and stimulated by the rediscovery of a trunk full of manuscripts and letters he had left behind in Paris in 1928, according to the intro to the "restored edition".) So this becomes for me another illustration of the complex processes of memory as we age, on which Elkhonon Goldberg has so much fascinating information. I sympathize with Hemingway's view, that what is "true" is what is honestly felt. What other truth can we know? Because all information is mediated by our senses, which may decive us, and captured and recalled through brain circuitry which evolves as we do.

But mainly, besides these reflections on memory, I admire Hemingways artisanry. The book (in the familiar edition edited by Mary Hemingway) is, as Hemingway invites us to consider it, a novel. The story of how a young man seeking fame achieves it at the cost of his innocence. And in the course of telling the story, he gives some good tips on story-writing. Most important for me, just find one "true" sentence and that's enough to get you started, and always be sure you have some idea of what happens next before you knock off work to think about something else. Good tips.

Wikipedia: A Moveable Feast

Wikipedia: Ernest Hemingway)

Ford Madox Ford

See also Elkhonon Goldberg, The wisdom paradox: how your mind can grow stronger as your brain grows older. New York: Gotham Books, 2005. I referred to it briefly in a note on Eros and Thanatos last month.

2009/08/18

Siege mentality

This novel by the first Man Booker International prize winner (2005) is also the first fiction I've ever read from Albania. Ismail Kadaré wrote Kështjella, here translated as The Siege, in 1969, when Enver Hoxha -- Mao Tse-Tung's only ally in Europe -- feared Soviet invasion in the wake of the invasion of Czechoslovakia & fomented national anxiety about a possible siege. The idolized 15th-century Albanian resistance leader George Castrioti, known as "Skanderbeg" ("Lord Alexander"), is mentioned frequently but (prudently) Kadaré never describes him directly or lets him appear. Kadaré's strong insistence on the Christian faith of the defenders is probably historically accurate for the period, just prior to the actual Ottoman conquest and conversion to Islam, but was politically uncomfortable in Enver Hoxha's Albania.

In 1990 Kadaré, Albania's most celebrated novelist, left for France & began revising this and other works, expanding this novel with pieces that had been cut by censors in 1969; the French translation, on which this English translation is based, is of that expanded version. Here you can find my plot summary and commentary on Kadaré, Ismail. The Siege. (Original: Kështjella. Roman, 1970.) Trans. Jusuf Vrioni (Albanian to French); David Bellos (French to English). New York: Canongate, 2008.

Photo: Skanderbeg statue in Tirana from Trip Advisor

According to this Wikipedia article, the historical Skanderbeg did not abjure Islam and rebel against the Ottoman sultan until 1443, holding out until 1466, so this novel stretches history in several ways. But the details of siege warfare sound authentic, and even though this particular siege is an invention, the Ottomans did suffer some equally disastrous defeats as depicted here before their final, overwhelming triumph.

2009/08/16

Our friends, the Freudian little people

We're in D.C., at the Dumbarton Oaks guest house, where the Dumbarton Oaks Museum has included a piece we own (pyramid in the photo) in their exhibit of Charles Simonds' sculptures, drawings and videos. They've put Charles' fantastical dwellings for tiny people and other sculptures in appropriate spots among the pre-Columbian (Mayan, Inca, etc.) pieces that partly inspired them. It's a lot of fun. His parents were both Freudian psychiatrists, and you'll see a lot of Freudian references -- or jokes -- among the works. We love to visit the Dumbarton Oaks museum on any pretext, anyway. There is a pre-Inca woven tunic of such fine weft that Susana has to keep returning to believe it. And I also get very involved in the other collection, of Byzantine mosaics and artifacts.

Susana acquired this marvelous pyramid from Charles more than 30 years ago, when he was just starting out. I should have taken a picture when we were in the gallery yesterday, to show you the setting in the show, but I didn't. This blog El estante del fondo includes excellent photos of this and other Simonds pieces, along with intelligent commentary (in Spanish).

2009/08/13

High school, 50 years on

This past weekend Susana & I traveled to Lake Forest, north of Chicago, for the 50th anniversary reunion of my small (about 135) LFHS graduating class. I'll post pictures (Susana's got them on her computer; we're at a cybercafé in New York City right now). For now, some reflections.

Why do we do this? Re-une, I mean. Nostalgia? Not for me -- I feel no longing to return to that time of adolescent confusion and awkwardness. I do have fond memories of some teachers, who now are all deceased (well, it's been 50 years!). And memories of some funny, pleasant moments with some of the kids. I hadn't been back at all, and I had some curiosity to see how those former kids and the place itself looked now. But more important to me was something I learned at my college reunions, that any gathering of what Heinrich Böll called our Zeitgenossen or "generational comrades" will include people with whom I can compare and check my own understandings of the turbulent times we've lived through.

That is, I looked forward to conversations even with people I didn't know well then. There were some kids I barely remembered who now, as experienced adults, gave me vivid impressions and a desire to learn more about how our times looked from their viewing point. Some were in Vietnam (which I managed to avoid -- I was on the outside, protesting the war). And all were in places and career situations different from mine. I hope that we can now continue those conversations, by email or other ways.

Another general impression: 1959, the year of our graduation, was not only pre-AIDS, it was also before any of us had become aware of feminism. Girls were the weaker sex, expected to attach themselves to some guy to make their, but mostly his, life more meaningful. And that seems to be what most of my girl classmates did. There were a couple of exceptions, including the girl I was most interested in. She was one of the few who had very clear ideas of what she did not want, which included (fortunately for both of us) me. Good for her! And there were others, including one very sweet girl I'd once taken to a dance, who seems to have found the right guy for a mutually supportive relationship that lasted 45 years. She was, alas, recently widowed, but she has the strength of those good memories and the life they built and their children, and seemed like a happy, active person. She had in fact been one of the organizers of this pretty complicated gathering (it had involved researching where everybody was, reserving meeting halls, printing a "yearbook", hiring a photographer -- lots of details to get together).

But they learned, some more quickly than others. Some of the happiest women at the reunion had rid themselves of unsatisfying (or worse) partners and made lives of their own. These included one girl I remembered very well as a conversation partner, for hours. Now she's a very well-established professional, still curious about the world.

Not to neglect the guys. Some of them (or us) caught on to the dignity of women in time not to mess up our marriages, and some of us maybe even started out that way. So, a salute to all my Zeitgenossen! I was very happy to get (re)acquainted.

Resistance is possible!

But can we stop the wasting of the planet in time? Here's encouraging news about the struggle, another well-documented report by Mark Engler.
Tomgram: Mark Engler, Protesting at Climate Ground Zero

2009/07/31

How 'how we know' is changing

Good review by Michael Massing of books and blogs dealing with
The News About the Internet - The New York Review of Books

It's worth reading the whole piece, but if you don't want to take the time, the essence is in this quote from the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism's 2009 "State of the News Media" report:
Power is shifting to the individual journalist and away, by degrees, from journalistic institutions.... Through search, e-mail, blogs, social media and more, consumers are gravitating to the work of individual writers and voices, and away somewhat from institutional brand. Journalists who have left legacy news organizations are attracting funding to create their own websites.... Experiments like GlobalPost are testing whether individual journalists can become independent contractors offering reporting to various sites, in much the way photographers have operated for years at magazines.


2009/07/30

News from the ancient past: Ethnicide, ethnogenesis & us

Who Killed the Men of England? | Harvard Magazine July-August 2009 Fascinating new findings. The social construction of the "Anglo Saxons", whether Neanderthals were vegans, and a whole lot of sex in Medellín, among other issues being clarified by new genetic and archaeological techniques.

2009/07/28

How Language Shapes Thoughts

I'm delighted to see that Lera Boroditsky is getting empirical proof of something that any of us who speak more than one language already know (but may find hard to prove):
Why Language May Shape Our Thoughts | Newsweek Voices - Sharon Begley | Newsweek.com: "Lera Boroditsky"

See also my old article, Mermaids and Other Fetishes: Images of Latin America, from Translation Perspectives.

Night Train - Weekly Feature - Murray Dunlap

A very good story, close to home.
Night Train - Weekly Feature - Murray Dunlap

How The NYT Book Review Selects

This is reassuring -- it confirms that the process is tough but about as fair as could be, except that a not-so-good book by an established author will probably take precedence over a pretty good book by a newcomer. I count myself very lucky for having had a book selected and reviewed there once.
Book Publishing News: The New York Times Book Review Selection Process Revealed by Scott Lorenz

Oh, God, not again!

Sam Harris is perhaps too generous with this purveyor of ignorance garbed in a lab coat.
Op-Ed Contributor - Science Is in the Details - NYTimes.com

2009/07/25

Eros and Thanatos

Thanatos, Ephesos
I've reached a stage of life where I think about mortality almost as often as about sex.

Well, maybe not that often, but still, more than I used to. As Dr. Johnson noted, an unappealable deadline concentrates the mind wonderfully.

According to the I.R.S.'s life expectancy tables (for calculating minimum yearly distributions from your IRAs), mine could be 30 years from now. (I'm 68.) A man could do a lot of damage in 30 years. Or a lot of good. But that assumes maintaining the physical vigor and mental acuity to do one or the other. And this is one reason I've so eagerly read Elkhonon Goldberg, The wisdom paradox: how your mind can grow stronger as your brain grows older. New York: Gotham Books, 2005. Twice! Because I wanted to be sure I got it all, including the summaries of experimental results and the technical language. Goldberg was a student of the great Soviet neuropsychologist Aleksandr Luria (1902-1977), who practically founded the discipline (combining knowledge of psychology with examinations of brain anatomy and processes), and is now doing some very creative work of his own at New York University. This book, and maybe some reflections on my earlier readings of Luria and Vygotsky, deserve another blog essay. But in short -- very short -- there is good reason to think that, with good mental exercise, we can keep our brains active and alert for a very long time.

My friend and mentor Walter James Miller is now 91, and still continuing his prolific writing and lecturing career.* I think I know how he does it -- he keeps reading new and challenging things, writing analyses, and exchanging ideas with students and other authors. Terrific brain exercises.
____________________________________________________________
* Walter died on 20 June 2010, about a year after I'd written this. Check out his Wikipedia page in the link above.

But I'm going to plan more conservatively, to try to get everything important done much sooner. In the next ten years. Some writing projects, both fiction and sociological, two languages I want to learn better and some others I'll have to learn from scratch, and in the shorter run, to learn to play the Albéniz' "Asturias" (transcribed for guitar).

And of course to enjoy as much sex as possible before wingèd Thanatos comes to whisk me off. That's also good for maintaining vigor. And it's such fun.

*Illus.: Winged youth with a sword, probably Thanatos, personification of death. Detail of a sculptured marble column drum from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesos, ca. 325-300 BC. Found at the south-west corner of the temple. British Museum. Source: Wikipedia

2009/07/23

Think Again: Why Not the Best?

Excellent investigation of the real state of America's "best health system in the world." By Eric Alterman: Think Again: Why Not the Best?

When is a coup not a coup?

The defenders of acting Honduran president Roberto Micheletti have put together as close to a coherent argument as possible, I suppose, that sending soldiers into the president's bedroom and rousting him out of bed and out of the country is not a coup, but a constitutional democratic act.

They may have a point, that President Manuel Zelaya was flouting the constitution (by calling for a constitutional referendum without approval of the established organs). Presidents tend to do that whenever they can get away with it, even in places with sturdier institutions (I'm thinking of G. W. Bush and Guantánamo, etc., but there are plenty of other examples). But then, who wasn't flouting the constitution? Where in the Honduran constitution does it say that the Supreme Court is authorized to send in the army to oust the president?

The Honduran constitution needed, and needs, reform. Zelaya's problem with it was that it was designed to keep economic and political power in the hands of the old elites, in part because of the stacking of the Supreme Court and other obstacles, and so limited his powers to reform the economy. The political right's problem with it was that, while it was designed to protect the privileged, it didn't contemplate any serious challenge from a democratically elected president (the right was hoping to control and limit elections as they always had), and so had no mechanism for impeachment. They expected constitutional interpretation always to be malleable to their wishes, especially since they control the Supreme Court.

Joaquín Villalobos was right when he wrote a few weeks ago that the weakness and instability of Central American governments is by historical design, beginning with independence and the division of the region (under the influence of Great Britain and the U.S. subsequently) into five (or six if we count Panama, seven if we also count English-speaking Belize) little states, each intended to be too weak to buck outside economic or political pressure. Except when they do. And even when at great cost a popular movement has struggled to victory or at least stalemate vis à vis the local oligarchy, as in Nicaragua or El Salvador, they still are poor and vulnerable.

The solution will be a long time coming. It will have to be some sort of economic and political union, not necessarily fusion into a single Central American state but mechanisms of cooperation with other countries within or beyond the region. The need for such larger support is of course what impelled Zelaya's groping for Hugo Chávez's outstretched hand. Whereas the Honduran oligarchy preferred the U.S.'s impending boot.

Meanwhile, we have to insist that military intervention to solve political disputes is unacceptable. Isolating this regime by cutting off trade, aid and political contacts seems to me like the best policy, to encourage other democratic forces within Honduras. And we may hope that whatever leadership emerges will be less clumsy than Mel Zelaya, and that it will have created more space for reform by changing the Supreme Court and other institutions. In short, there's no easy solution, but this crisis can be the prelude to needed reforms.

YouTube - Union Civica Democratica -- July 4 -- Democracy Alive and Strong Because The Constitution Works

2009/07/12

The World - Farewell to an India I Hardly Knew - NYTimes.com

This is a sensitive and beautifully written piece whose implications reach far beyond India. A similarly uncomfortable, exhilarating, often awkward combination of liberation and displacement is taking place all over the world. The World - Farewell to an India I Hardly Knew - NYTimes.com

2009/07/09

P.S., McNamara's lesson for today

My friend César Chelala has reminded me of his 2004 article, a good supplement to the "obit" by Charlie Degelman we posted yesterday.

McNamara's lesson for today's politicians | The Japan Times Online

And just what is that lesson? Not one that they'll find easy to learn, because that would require a humility uncommon among politicians. It's really a double lesson: First, "We could be wrong" -- a very hard idea for men in power to accept, but a ncessary first step. And then, "We must to listen to those that disagree with us and those whose experience has taught them things we can't know." Beyond humility, that requires highly developed listening skills. It also implies a respect for international law, which is one kind of codification of the voices of others. Abraham Lincoln, FDR and perhaps one or two other U.S. presidents have had such skills. We are fortunate that another is in office now.

Howard Nemerov's poem The Makers, about "the first poets, the greatest ones... the ones who worded the world...," closes with this stanza:
They were the first great listeners, attuned
To interval, relationship, and scale,
The first to say above, beneath, beyond,
Conjurors with love, death, sleep, with bread and wine,
Who having uttered vanished from the world
Leaving no memory but the marvelous
Magical elements, the breathing shapes
And stops of breath we build our Babels of.

2009/07/08

Robt. McNamara's apologia pro vita sua

Charles Degelman isn't ready to forgive the architect of death in Indochina. The question is, how could a man so bright pursue a course so wrong and so ineffective in achieving his ends? Was it just a stubborn refusal to admit that he'd made a mistake? Or did he achieve some joy from tallying the body count of foes? Charlie and I were both in the struggle to stop him, as parts of what grew to be a very big movement against the war. McNamara's belated tears are just water on the cheeks. See Charles Degelman's well-deserved irreverent obit.
Footprints

2009/07/02

Welcome, Jim!

Jim Watt who just joined my list of "followers" is an old friend, from way back -- high school in Lake Forest, Illinois. He tells me the funny hat was part of a Renaissance festival costume. He's on as many networks as I, or maybe more, but no blog. And this morning he become my first live contact on Skype! We hadn't talked for ages. Loved it.

2009/07/01

Bulwer-Lytton bad prose prizes, 2009

Thanks to Dirk for forwarding this: 2009
My favorite is "the world's first and only hot air baboon ride."
But there are other gems here too.

2009/06/27

"Followers"

I'm tickled to have a half-dozen discriminating "followers." I don't suppose that means they read everything I post here, but at some time they found something interesting enough to sign up. If you've just stumbled upon this blog, I'd like to introduce you to these folks who are pictured at left.
  • James Sanderson, whom I met through Twitter and who has just joined us, writes thoughtful literary commentary on his own blog, which I recommend to you. If you click on his Blogger profile, you can also find samples of his own fiction.
  • R.D. Larson has been a cyberfriend for years, and a big supporter of my work. Writing gets lonely some times, and we need all the support we can get. She writes strange, funny fiction that pretend to be terrifying, and sort of is except that she keeps you laughing half-way through it. She no longer has a blog, apparently (correct me if I'm wrong, R.D.), but you can find some of her twisted fables at Bewildering Stories.
  • Michelle, in the funny fur hat (I hope she takes it off in July -- it gets hot in Montclair, NJ), has got to be my youngest "follower." I don't know much about her yet, except that she has an amazing boyfriend and writes fiction (as she tells us on her blog). I don't know how she found me, but I'm glad to have her and wish her well in her creative writing.
  • Sarah's appearance surprised and flattered me -- her own blog is largely in French, commenting on French literature. I do read French, but only with effort and a dictionnaire. Veuillez lire son blog, The Quill and the Brush, pour voir quelques nouvelles littéraires.
  • Chris Leo represents the other part of my blog's name, "society." I got to know him from an exchange about sociologist Ulrich Beck. He teaches politics and urban planning at universities in Canada, and reading his blog, Christopher Leo at the University of Winnipeg, helps keep me a little more aware of the discourse in these fields -- which I need to know, for our book on architecture and urbanism in Latin America.
  • And finally, Dirk van Nouhuysen, the only one of the six I know f2f. Dirk is an old comrade from the National Writers Union (I was the New York chapter chair before I left for Spain, and Dirk had held various offices in the union). He's another very literary guy, with a great sense of humor. I'm also happy to see his sensible, frank comments on my blog posts. You can find samples of his prose linked to his web page.

New anthology springs to life

Here it is, that anthology of "living fiction" I mentioned earlier, with one of my stories. As I said in Facebook, I get a little thrill almost like the one my character in the story experiences, every time one of my fiction pieces comes out. Above Ground book trailer (YouTube)

2009/06/23

"I saw my parents having sex"

Outrageously funny. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9l8Xl1jiCis

Literary agents in the age of Twitter

I know you haven't seen evidence lately, but honestly, I have been thinking about things that deserve the mental effort. Especially about the transformation of our entire social universe. The collapse of capitalism as we knew it, the dissolution of the old publishing industry, and other changes. And what remains in the midst of such change. As someone said in an earlier epoch of massive social transformation, "All that is solid melts into air." Today we might say, all that is routine dissolves into cyberspace.

The apparent silliness of Twitter is a clue, not as silly as we first thought. We scoffed, saying How can you say anything worth saying if you reduce it all to 140 characters?

Well, you can say something important in a lot less. Like "Help!" Or "I love you." Or, the way Twitter is used by many of us, "That way" -- followed by a tiny url, like this: http://blip.tv/file/2269422. That's how I found the panel I mentioned yesterday. A tweet with its url sent me to a 15-minute video -- the video contains many more than 140 characters, even more than 140 sentences, but I knew about it because of a "tweet."

The collapse of the capitalism we loved to hate is also implied by the dissolution of old-style publishing which is the subject of that video I just mentioned. But I'll hold that for another blognote, a sequel to this one. For now I want to understand what this means for a writer, like me, who has composed a long narrative fiction. A "novel."

Like almost everybody, when the landscape changes I stick to the old routines, running straight off the cliff like Wile E. Coyote. I've sent out queries to literary agents whose websites presuppose that we are still in the '80s, trying to persuade one of a tiny pool of editors in one of a dozen publishing houses, who may then start the process leading to the printing, distribution and (probably) ultimate pulping of pages containing my text. Which maybe some people will have read before it gets pulped, and maybe some small part of those people will have paid money to buy the book, possibly enough to pay for all that apparatus (commissions, salaries, paper, printing, shipping) and just maybe with enough left over to pay me something. It didn't work very well in the '80s and now -- well, like friend Wile, I've just looked down and seen that there's nothing there. Or almost nothing.

But maybe I'm underestimating the agents I've queried. They too must know that their world has changed, that now it's possible for someone with a long narrative fiction to make it publicly available without passing through that apparatus, the "publishing industry." But if I do it all on my own, for example, if I just post my novel on the web, what's to distinguish it from all the other cyberjunk circling our globe? I'm happy to write the narrative. But much as in the old times, I could use some help in getting it out to potential readers.

So I think I do need the agency of someone to guide this work to where it will get some attention. A literary agent, we might still call that person, but not one who is focused on her contacts in the publishing houses that produce and distribute texts on paper.

Maybe, as I said, the agents who have requested my sample pages understand all this (two of them have got it now). Or maybe not. At least one agent (not yet on my query list) does seem to understand. Colleen Lindsay is the one who sent me to that panel on Twitter and publishing. I wonder how she sees the agent's role now. Should she help an author package the work, with links, trailer, illustrations and whatever else? Insinuate the work into network sites?

2009/06/22

Twitterature?

"Twitter won't save publishing, and publishing should not be saved. But books may save Twitter," says Richard Nash (@R_Nash) Some really interesting ideas here.
twitter Publishing at the 140 characters conference - day 2

2009/06/20

A teeming Cairo alley

I just read and now have to review an early novel (I think his earliest) by the prolific Egyptian novelist and short story writer Gamal al-Ghitani. The review is for Gently Read Literature, whose editor Daniel Casey kindly sent me my copy. These are notes for a draft of the review, so I can share the process of writing a small essay on something the author knows little about.

The Zafarani Files (originally published as Waqa'i' Harat al-Za'farani, 1976. Trans. Farouk Abdel Wahab. Cairo; New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2009) is a slapstick comedy set in a crowded, run-down alley of Cairo, with over 50 named and mostly zany characters, all of them obsessed by sex (their own and all their neighbors') and their social standing. Normally, they tolerate one another's routines -- including the effendi who pimps his own wife, the baker who is a male prostitute at the baths, the sergeant major (retired) and various others whose pretensions are far greater than their accomplishments. They view gossip, the frequent loud and violent quarrels of several of the women, and the occasional visit of a disoriented stranger as welcome entertainment. But one day the mysterious sheikh who lives in a tiny, dark apartment under the stairs and whom hardly anyone has ever seen, decides to begin his world-changing program in Zafarani Alley by depriving all the men there of that which they prize most: their sexual potency. This drives everybody over the brink. The pimp loses his customers, the male prostitute his job, the other men -- a taxi driver, a train fueler, a low-level bureaucrat, et al. -- their self-confidence, and the women have to resort to ever more desperate methods to get sexual satisfaction. Meanwhile, the government apparatus for political repression tries, with hopeless incompetence, to investigate these strange events while simultaneously denying to the world that anything unusual is occurring.

OK, my first problem is I'm probably missing a lot of the jokes. I don't know Cairo beyond what I've read in Mahfouz, and here there are word-games going on and what are probably sly references to larger political events of the 1970s. Secondly, there are so many named characters that it's hard to keep them straight, especially since the names are often similar. For example, Nabil, Nabila and Umm Nabila are three different characters, the first a young man that some of the local women fall in love with, the second a 26-year old female schoolteacher and unwilling spinster, and the third her mother. "Umm," I quickly figured out from the context, means "Mother of," and may be followed by the name of either a daughter or a son, as in Umm Yusif.

And finally, nothing ever gets resolved. With so many characters, each with his own craziness, there is no central element holding them all together as a story except the sheikh's curse (or blessing, or whatever it's supposed to be). But we never find out what happens to the sheikh (or even whether he really exists as they imagine him) or with the curse of impotence, which may still be in effect in that fictitious alley. What al-Ghitani must have been trying to do was to scandalize everybody, religious sheikhs, pretentious bureaucrats, ignorant shopkeepers and tradesmen, women generally, and the organs of the police state. The only characters who come across as reasonably sane are the "politico," possibly a Communist (or so the state bureaucracy imagines) just released from long imprisonment, and the young man who visits him to learn about the world.

But these are just reactions. Maybe tomorrow I can turn all this into a review.

2009/06/18

Novelists

Weary one night lately I turned to Howard Nemerov for solace. But (as I in fact already knew) "solace" is not what Nemerov offers. He wasn't looking for comforting answers, but new ways of posing the eternal unsettling questions.

I picked up his Collected Poems (1977), hoping to find "The Makers." Not to refresh my memory, because I know it by heart and often recite it to myself and anyone else who will listen, but rather to see what other poems he surrounded it with. But that poem didn't make it into this collection -- perhaps he wrote it after 1977. I did however find this deliciously disturbing reflection on our métier:

NOVELISTS

Theirs is a trade for egomaniacs,
People whose parents did not love them well.
It’s done by wasps and women, Jews and Blacks,
In every isolation ward in Hell.

They spend their workadays imagining
What never happened and what never will
To people who are not and whose non-being
Always depends on the next syllable.

(And three more stanzas. Click on link for the whole thing.)

Egomaniac? Moi? Maybe so. It is a very odd business, imagining all those people into being and then losing control over what they do, because sometimes the next syllable does not depend on the author but on the logic and rhythm of the prose. We are gods overtaken by our creatures.

2009/06/13

Congratulations: You too can pretend you're famous

I just got a mailing from the International Biographical Centre announcing, "You have been selected as one of IBC's TOP 100 PROFESSIONALS - 2009. This accolade is credited to those individuals that have fulfilled a standard of merit in the eyes of their peers that is beyond the norm."

I am thus entitled to a "distinguished and coveted honour" in the form of a "Full colour 16" x 11" Certificate" which I may purchase for only US$440.00 or £275.00 Sterling plus shipping and handling. Well, thanks, fellas, but I just don't have a good place to hang it.

Gee, I wonder how I won this. The letter says I should "feel proud of the influence you have on your colleagues and friends." Could it be because of my blog?

2009/06/10

More on our deeper and wider urbanization

Though this book isn't specifically cited in Mike Davis' Planet of the Slums (see blog entry below), it covers the same ground and uses many of the same case studies. Some of the findings are alarming but the authors eschew Davis' apocalyptic tone.

National Research Council. Cities Transformed: Demographic Change and Its Implications in the Developing World. Washington DC: The National Academies Press, 2003.

Every big city has problems -- urban population growth is chaotic and frenzied, especially in the global south, and often creates desperate conditions -- but some have found solutions that work better than others. Also, as Davis also notes, urbanization is reaching much wider than ever, that is, urban densities and the reach of urban music, crime, markets, disease, but also of urban opportunities, are extending much farther into what used to be the rural hinterland. The opportunities are real -- urban densities permit economies of scale for providing education, transport, housing and everything else more cheaply -- but are sabotaged by urban problems including the systems of exploitation that Davis focuses on.

For the book we have underway right now my concern is the built environment, the bricks and mortar and steel and tarmac, or clapboard and canvas or adobe and twigs, that make up the physical spaces of the city. This aspect is barely touched on explicitly in this National Research Council publication, but its chapters on the importance of location, "diversity and inequality", the urban economy and "the challenge of urban governance" are all relevant, because these things shape, and are shaped by, the physical structures. Our book is on Latin America, and there are many examples here and literature citations to follow up from São Paulo, Mexico City, and even smaller places like Porto Alegre (and many other cities in Africa and Asia). But there is a startling gap: barely a mention of Cuba, one of the countries that has done the most in innovative projects to confront "diversity and inequality" and other problems. Cuban approaches would be hard to emulate in other, non-socialist countries (although Venezuela is trying), and maybe haven't always been successful even in their own country, but they deserve serious, critical examination. (I'll try to work up something on the topic.)

2009/06/08

For readers and writers, LibraryThing

Here is a very well designed and simple to use site for connecting readers to readers, finding books in any of dozens of categories and any of many languages (though most entries and all the labels are in English), and reading or writing reviews. It also includes sections specifically for writers.
Home | LibraryThing

My problem: I've been getting so engaged in these writers' sites I haven't done any writing lately! Except in the blogs, which don't count with my editor.

2009/06/07

Slums

First, some good news:

Shakira Makes Education Her Mission - NYTimes.com

And be sure to check out "Hips Don't Lie" and then the more sober video on her "Barefoot Foundation" on Shakira's YouTube channel.

And now the down and dirty on the global horrors, too big for even Shakira's tremendous energy and good intentions:

Davis, Mike. Planet of slums. London; New York: Verso, 2006.

Davis has done us a great service by pulling together global data and case studies to portray a monster that threatens to be the real Terminator, bigger, more deadly and more immediate than the movie version.

Slums are as old as industrialization, which first created them by bringing (driving) people from the country to the cities for their labor, without bothering to provide housing, schooling, health care or even adequate space for them to live. Dickens and Engels, Jack London and George Orwell all wrote vividly about them. But since the 1950s, they have been growing exponentially and now have devoured whole cities -- like Kinshasa, which once was a smallish colonial capital with usable streets, breathable air and urban amenities, but now (according to Davis) is an immense extension of hovels with no overall order, no services or infrastructure, and barely enough food and water for its 6 million people. (The Wikipedia article paints a slightly more favorable picture but says 8 million; for confirmation of Davis's description, check out Kinshasa est devenu poubelle (a video about an attempted drive across town) or these BBC photos, Kinshasa 'The Dustbin'.)

Starting with millions of "displaced persons" following World War II, followed by other millions displaced from their small towns and villages by revolutions, civil wars, mammoth construction projects such as the Aswan dam, the partition of the Indian subcontinent, and the environmental degradation of the countryside by mining and other industries, "urban" populations have multiplied even in places without infrastructure or jobs or anything else to draw them. Or police adequate to control them. They overwhelm the urban institutions, "ruralizing" lands on the outskirts and in the interstices of the cities as they establish their own norms, systems of local exploitation, and their own improvised solutions getting food, shelter and safety to survive another day. The process is especially pronounced in Africa (Côte d'Ivoire, Tanzania, Congo-Kinshasa, Gabon, Angola), the Indian subcontinent, and everywhere in the global south, but it's happening in Los Angeles and other cities too. And in the huge colonias of Mexico City, villas miserias of Buenos Aires, and barrios of Caracas, among other places.

Davis is especially hard on the IMF and its "structural adjustment programs" (SAP's), which demanded that poor countries privatize all services in order to qualify for loans, the result being the disappearance of public services and controls. And he is scathingly critical of what he considers neoliberal pipe dreams, that (as the one-time anarchist architect John Turner put it), slums could be the solution, not the problem. That is, with proper guidance, the creative energies of the slum population (building their own housing, for example, and even micro-industries) would boost national development and economic growth, bettering lives for everybody. But no, says Davis, with example after example from case studies, slum populations are so exploited, first by richer forces outside the slum (such as all those Indians who have made themselves wealthy by charging exorbitant rents for wretched housing) and secondly by one another (early squatters charge high rents from later arrivals, for example) that they have no margin to save to improve their housing or much less to grow a stable business.

Another pipe dream that seemed to offer solution without cost has been Hernando De Soto's loudly proclaimed insistence that granting titles of ownership to squatters would release great sums of capital for entrepreneurship. Again using case studies, Davis lists what he calls the "epistemological fallacies" of such arguments. 1, "de Soto's heroic 'micro entrepreneurs' are usually displaced public-sector professionals or laid-off skilled workers," i.e., "entrepreneurs" by necessity, not choice. 2, very few of the working poor are truly self-employed, but renting space or tools -- the rickshaw that they pull, the wheelbarrow they haul, etc. -- from somebody just a little less poor, in a system of endlessly franchised petty exploitation. (Points 3, 4 & 5 are really elaborations of that same point 2.) Then 6, desperation over the real economy turns slum dwellers increasingly to seek semi-magical solutions, such as gambling and pyramid schemes, often with magical invocations to religious spirits. 7, financing by microcredits as in the Grameen Bank, important as it may be to the survival of a few, will never allow sufficient accumulation to help very many people; rather, they've become the "cargo cult" of NGO's, a seemingly low-cost solution that isn't. 8, "increasing competition with the informal sector depletes social capital and dissolves self-help networks and solidarities" -- the poor are fighting against the poor.

So what do we do? Well, according to Davis, we'll have to wait for his next book to find out. Or we can try to do something, like the Grameen Bank loans or Shakira's "Barefoot Foundation," to solve at least a small part of the problem. It may be that the efforts of people like Shakira and the Grameen Bank's Muhammad Yunus will make enough of a difference in enough people's lives in enough places in the world to change the whole slumming dynamic. But even if they don't have such a wide impact, efforts like those and the stairway a bunch of us built in a Caracas slum at least make lives easier for some people for some time. It's not enough, but it's something.

For another view of slums, check out this article on architect José Castillo by Carlos Brillembourg (BOMB 94/Winter 2006).

(Image of a Caracas stairway -- not the one I worked on, but similar -- from BBC Mundo: Venezuela -- la vida en un barrio. Good series of slides.)