Author Archives: Pat Holt

One More Question Before Saturday

Preparing for my talk on “The Publishing Revolution” this Saturday, the host group, Sufi Women Organization, asked if women played a particular role in publishing history.

Vat a question! You wouldn’t think that women in the fine old “Gentlemen’s Profession” ever wielded a lot of power, and I’ll talk about why they didn’t — until, that is, a fantastic turning point in the 1980s.

A quick glimpse: Before then, just about every general book review section was dominated by reviews of white male authors — Saul Bellow, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Tom Wolfe, Joseph Heller and others.

After the 1980s, a Big Shift took place when those same front pages ran reviews of books by women — and very often women of color — such as Alice Walker, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, Barbara Kingsolver, Arundhati Roy, Louise Erdrich, Toni Morrison, Bharati Mukerjee and more.

Want to guess why? (Hint: Think Bay Area.) Actually I’ve never understood it, but come for brunch on Saturday and let’s all figure it out in the Q&A!

A few seats are left and advance reservations are required (no tickets at the door) by the end of Wednesday, March 2. Here’s the info — see you then!

Patricia Holt

on

The Publishing Revolution

Saturday March 5, 2016

Brunch 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

The Club at McInnis Park

350 Smith Ranch Road, San Rafael CA

For reservations call: 1-415-472-6959

Or register online at ias.org/swo

 

About that “Publishing Revolution”

I’m very excited to speak next Saturday 3/5 in San Rafael for Sufi Women on “The Publishing Revolution.”

For years I’ve used that term to describe what Holt Uncensored is all about. Now for the first time I hope to answer two big questions about it in one talk:

#1 From the start, why did Americans follow the British model by allowing book publishers to locate in one place (the Atlantic seaboard at first, now New York), thus dictating to the tastes of the rest of the country? We certainly took our beloved newspaper presses Westward; why not book presses?

#2 Why don’t we call the present Internet era a transformation? What is it about the print-to-screen process that’s made it a publishing revolution? (Hint: arrogance and outrage, to be describe calmly.)

Coming with me will be a giant USA map (4 by 6 feet!) held up thanks to Sufi Women with clamps and tape and more than one easel, plus a red dot laser pointer used by actual snipers to show the glorious mess in media and book industries we’re living with now.

The energy of the crowd brings its own surprises, so come with burning questions and remember, the fee may be hefty ($30) but you get a terrific brunch plus the ambiance of golfers swearing outside the windows and me swearing calmly inside..

Pre-registration required but the great Sufi Women have extended the deadline to Wednesday 3/2. Here’s the information:

Patricia Holt

on

The Publishing Revolution

Saturday March 5, 2016

Brunch 9:30 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.

The Club at McInnis Park

350 Smith Ranch Road, San Rafael CA

For reservations call: 1-415-472-6959

Or register online at ias.org/swo

 

P.S.: THANK YOU SUFI WOMEN, a spiritual and humanitarian  organization to beat the band.

Dumbness and Pornography at the New York Times

I used to enjoy the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times, in particular a page called The Ethicist. The writers there grappled with tough, snarly questions about ethics and moral clarity in our increasingly complicated times.

But something’s happened in recent months that make me want to toss the thing out the window. This once intelligent and thoughtful bastion of good writing has dumbed-down its content so much that kindergarten kids would laugh if they could read it.IMG_1938

Take this typical question: “Is it O.K. To Come to Work When I’m Sick and Sneezing?” Oh gosh, let me think. Answer: No.

Here’s another from a recent issue: “Should My Rich Friends Apply for Financial Aid?” You need an expert for this? Answer: No.

And Another: “Should I Help a Classmate Who Sexually Harassed My Friend Get a Job?” Are you nuts? Do you live on this planet? Answer: No.

And here’s one from the “Bonus Advice” column on the Ethicist page: “My husband complains that I use too much toilet paper. (We measured. I use approximately 20 squares per — .)” Answer: Never write to this column again.

IMG_1941Elsewhere, the New York Times Sunday Magazine has started a weekly survey that is so stupid and so appalling, I can’t believe anybody working there isn’t in jail.

The survey asks readers questions like this: “Would You Be an Anonymous Porn Star?”

That took my breath away. The editors write: “If you could star in a pornographic movie neck down and get paid handsomely for it, would you do it?”

To be kind, maybe the person who dreamed up this question is an older gentleman from the Penthouse/Playboy era who still believes that pornography portrays men getting laid by women who enjoy servicing them. Maybe this person thinks it’s fun to sidle up to guys like himself and say: Hey, it’s about anonymous sex with plenty of babes. You never get caught and it even pays well, so why not?IMG_1943

I’ll tell you why. We’re talking about the New York Times! Didn’t anyone research the fact that even 40 years ago, women “porn stars” were treated like sex slaves — beaten up behind the scenes; made to copulate with animals, submit to simulated and real gang rape, endure primitive breast implants and humiliating ejaculation scenes?

Remember “porn star” Linda Lovelace? She said the oral sex scenes in her famous movie, Deep Throat, were performed “with a gun to my head the entire time.” But let’s say women “porn stars” aren’t coerced — let’s say they need the cash and choose to appear being strangled or whipped while raped.  Is this the kind of image you’d want your son to see at age 11 (average age of boys first viewing pornography), or your daughter to aspire to as a “porn star”?

411vFXivT2L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Plus, that was 40 years ago. As any New York Times assistant editor would have discovered through a cursory search on Google, today, thanks to competition on the Internet, the pornography industry is much worse — much more brutal, cruel, ruthless and jaded.

As documented by Wheelock College professor Gail Dines in her book, Pornland (Beacon, 2011) escalating forms of violence in pornography have made the sight of ripped vaginas, bloody anuses and faces blinded by ejaculate lure younger and younger male viewers.

So the problem isn’t only dumbed-down information. It’s the New York Times Sunday Magazine pimping out women as objects of sick fantasies. Who takes responsibility for this? Ultimately, it has to be the publisher, Andy Wright.

Andy Wright

Andy Wright

And look, he’s not an elderly gentleman at all! Just a nice-looking white guy, like your typical John.

Granted, Andy Wright gets to take credit, too, for an excellent article elsewhere in the magazine just last Sunday (January 5) called “To Catch a Rapist.” It describes SVU (Special Victims Unit) detectives in New Haven working through a huge caseload of sex crimes.

But that’s all the more reason for the entire staff to keep professional standards high in every article and item, including — ta da! — a page called The Ethicist. Or maybe they’re counting too many toilet paper squares to notice.

Amazon: The Spoof and the Store

Here’s a fictional job interview from a recent novel about Amazo — pardon, a retail book giant on the Internet with the made-up name of Scroll. See if you recognize this novel:

         “Tell me, Alice, how do you like to read?”

         “Oh — well, I love to read!”

         “I mean, do you use an e-reader or …?”

          She leaned forward slightly, like she wanted to reach over and catch my answer in her hands.

         “Of course. I have a Kindle, first generation. I also read galleys, manuscripts, hardcovers, basically whatever I can get my hands on.”

         “So you’re agnostic.”

         “Actually I was raised Catholic, and I’ve fallen pretty far from the flock, but I still consider myself a spiritual person, if that makes any sense?” (Why was she asking about religion? Was this even legal?)

         “Good to know. But I meant platform agnostic, meaning you toggle back and forth between your device and carbon-based books.”

If you spotted this as a scene from A Window Opens by Elizabeth Egan, published by Simon & Schuster in August, you’re right.

"A Window Opens," hardcover edition.

“A Window Opens,” hardcover edition.

Egan, who once worked as an editor at Amazon’s New York publishing office, has given us both a cautionary tale and a spoof about the horrid place. Instead of parodying the book publishing efforts that she witnessed for about a year, A Window Opens envisions what might happen if Amazon were to climb down from its e-Ivory Tower and open an actual brick-and-mortar bookstore.

And so, ta da! That very thing happened just last month, when the online retail giant Amazon.com opened Amazon Books, a 5500-square-foot retail bookstore in Seattle. Rumor has it this might be the flagship for a coming chain of retail bookstores across the country, but we won’t know for a year or so.

Amazon's first bookstore (not a Benihana)

Amazon’s first bookstore (not a Benihana)

In the book, Egan’s vision of Amazon’s first retail effort is different from the reality, as we’ll see. But in both cases, the store and the spoof, observers get to see how easily the language of e-everythinge-readers, e-books, e-devices, e-families, e-marriage, e-idiocy and e-tyranny — affects modern life.

A Window Opens is about Alice Pearce, a happily married mother of three kids in upscale New Jersey, who holds a part-time job as book editor for a popular women’s magazine called You.

This is the first of several parallels linking author and character.  Egan is also a mother of three living in suburban New Jersey, and You sounds like a combination of the real-life magazine Self, where Egan once worked as book editor, and Glamour, where she reviews books now.

Alice loves the fact that she can commute to Manhattan part-time and be a stay-at-home mother most of the time.  When, however, her husband Nicholas is passed over for partner at his hotsy totsy Wall Street firm, he figures his only option is to start a firm of his own. With no start-up money, no office and no clients, he needs Alice to step up and find a high salary-paying job of her own.

Author Elisabeth Egan

Author Elisabeth Egan

Facing that all-too-common terror of the long-out-of-work “soccer Mom” leaving a cushy fun employer like You and returning to full-time work, Alice finds out fast that she’s practically unemployable. Then almost out of the blue, she’s asked to interview for a job as “content manager” at Scroll, a new chain of bookstores that may quickly dominate the retail landscape.

“Our mission is to reinvent reading the way Starbucks reinvented coffee,” says the Marketing Specialist at Scroll who discovers Alice — not through an employment agency or head-hunter, of course, but by following Alice’s cute literary bon mots on Twitter.

Scroll outlets will not be bookstores exactly. They’re called “reading lounges” because for one thing, there will be no physical (carbon-based!) books in the stores. Instead, customers will be able to, as Alice learns, “browse e-books on docked tablets and then download files directly to all their devices at once. Plans for the lounges include fair-trade-certified coffee bars and eco-friendly furniture sourced from reclaimed local materials.”

Although based in Manhattan to be near the mainstream book industry, Scroll is “tethered to its parent,” a giant chain of shopping malls called MainStreet that “curates” retail needs in one place. “So patrons could buy, say, a wheel barrow along with their gardening book,” Alice tells us.

You can see the author’s smart set-up.  Words like CURATE, AGNOSTIC and CARBON-BASED all sound like exaggerations that could easily spring from a company like Amazon — or Google, Apple, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — where workers feel required to use language that sounds visionary, hip and brave.

At a Scroll store, customers can browse e-books in a recliner chair with cup holders that keep their organic beverage warm. And they can sit there as long as they like doing SSR (Sustained Silent Reading).

[DRIB (Don’t Read If Busy):

[I kept thinking that Scroll is the worst idea for a bookstore I’ve heard in years — for one thing because it’s already been done.  The very first B Dalton store in Minnesota (late 1960s) looked something like Scroll, with big easy chairs, wide aisles, parquet floors, a helpful-to-obsequious staff and muffled quiet to inspire as much SSR as people could handle. 

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

Pickwick Bookshop, founded 1938

As I recall, that first B Dalton nearly failed until a management scout visited the noisy, congested Pickwick Book Shop on Hollywood Blvd. in Los Angeles.  The aisles were covered with ratty flooring and crowded with so many piles of books that customers had trouble walking anywhere, let alone sitting down for SSR. Shopping was entirely self-service and the lines at the cash registers were packed with people buying (not reading) books by the armload.

The lesson at Pickwick was that bookstore customers didn’t want to interact with a sales clerk who might ask embarrassing literary questions they couldn’t answer. And they didn’t like SSR in a retail setting — too much like a library. They preferred to do their reading at home or in a crowded coffee shop.

B Dalton mall store

B Dalton mall store

So B Dalton’s management adapted to this model by not learning anything in particular.  It simply bought and closed the venerable Pickwick Book Shop and its small local chain, copied the Pickwick approach and charged publishers for every inch of display space it could get away with. As a result, B Dalton’s junky, commercial-books-only shopping mall stores did well for a time, as did its competitor, Waldenbooks.]

Egan is clearly aiming her  expose at Amazon, but she’s too smart to quote CEO Jeff Bezos’ icky coined words, like “customer-centric.” Instead she turns to his other icky ideas, such as “the empty chair.” When Alice notices that at least one chair is left empty no matter how crowded the meeting, a Scroll colleague explains: “The empty chair is for the customer,” because the customer, nobody should forget,  “always has a presence in meetings.”

The "empty chair" theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

The “empty chair” theory as adopted by business consultant Gardner Customer Solutions

Yikes, how dumbed-down can Amazon get, you may scoff. But Bezos used the empty chair as “the ultimate boss at Amazon” — and the idea was picked up by so many management consultants for so many years,  it became a cliché. According to Forbes magazine, Bezos then replaced it with “specially trained employees” — actual human beings called Customer Experience Bar Raisers. “When they frown, vice-presidents tremble.”

In a similar way, Scroll increasingly takes on a kindergarten feel in Egan’s novel.  As part of their “onboarding” (orientation) period, workers must learn “the patois of Scroll,” such as “dropping a meeting” on someone’s calendar,  or showing team spirit by switching their candy preference to gummy bears made by Haribo, “the leading candy consumed by voracious readers,” Alice’s boss Genevieve declares with authority.

Customer-centric gummy bears: better than books?

Customer-centric gummy bears

True, the pressures on Alice are anything but child’s play. She must “liaise” with 30 agents and editors immediately and select 450 titles for Scroll’s first inventory; she must generate quickie e-books called ScrollOriginals (how close to Amazon’s “Kindle Singles” can you get?); and she must aspire to become a “ScrollCrier” who keeps the world “up-to-the-minute on our mission as it continues to evolve,” says Genevieve.

At first, workers at Scroll don’t have to punch in or account for their time, but soon an email circulates that everyone must “run their palms beneath our new Biometric Time Clock” each morning as a way of assisting “trackability.”  No matter. Alice’s first email from Scroll arrives at 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday, so she’s on the clock 24/7 anyway.

And Scroll is not just any start-up. It’s backed by MainStreet, a hugely successful chain of high-end shopping malls founded by the Rockwell brothers — and here the author’s description sounds a bit like the brothers who started Borders Books, a now defunct but once tyrannical big-box bookstore chain. The Borders brothers sold out before they could do as much damage as the thuggy Riggio brothers of Barnes & Noble (not mentioned in the book, thank heaven). Still, they left their mark by contributing to the bankruptcy of every independent retailer in Borders’ path.

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

The first Borders brothers store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1971

In any case, Scroll is set to become part of MainStreet’s new “lifestyle centers,” meaning shopping malls called Heritage Towne — and that’s TOWNE WITH AN ‘E,’ by the way. (Any time you want to evoke an old-timey feeling, just add an e or other letter, like the Bun Shoppe).

Heritage Townes are thriving, Alice learns, because they “mimic the hometown vibe of the very mom-and-pop stores they put out of business. Cobblestone, gaslit lanes connect Johnny Rockets (hamburger joints) with Hollister (clothing stores for “cool guys and gals”); phone charging stations are coyly housed inside old-fashioned phone booths; easy-listening renditions of folk favorites are piped to the furthest reaches of the parking lot, for the brave souls who forgo valet service. Heritage Towne has a gym, a movie theater, a band shell, a medical center, and its own Whole Foods.”

Liberty Bell topiary -- who could resist?

Patriotic topiary — who could resist?

Further, Alice notes, “all shrubbery was cleverly groomed with a patriotic theme. In the short walk around the place, I spotted topiaries in the shape of Uncle Sam, the Liberty Bell, and of course, a giant dollar bill.”

Alice doesn’t like the studied kitsch of Heritage Towne, but she is intrigued by Scroll’s boldness, even its vision, in the face of New York’s rickety old publishing industry.  “It would be fun to be at the beginning of something,” she thinks naively. “How many years have I been listening to the death knell of magazines?”

Or books.  “Who doesn’t want to see more bookstores, right?” says Genevieve, also thinking simplistically. Whether Scroll is good or bad for readers, for free speech, for capitalism, or for our democracy doesn’t seem to matter to Genevieve or for the most part to Alice.  What gets everyone’s attention is the latest upgrade in buzz. In the “simulated Scroll lounge” that’s been constructed in the New York office, Genevieve points out proudly, “we have a roaster on the premises so we know our beans have been treated humanely.”

What sustains Alice through her exhausting 90-hour weeks at Scroll is that allure so often heard in real life from Wonder Boys like Jeff Bezos — that you don’t just have a job when you work for companies like Amazon; you are changing the future.

Unknown-6Remember Bezos’ 10 business philosophies in real life? Just to dip into them for a moment:  #2 is Stick with Two Pizzas, meaning a project team should consist of 5-7 people, small enough to “feed with only two pizzas,” heh heh, pretty sophisticated, right?

Similarly, Scroll abides by its own Tenets of Winners, conveyed through acronyms such as:

WGIR Winners Get It Right

SADYC Surprise and Delight Your Customer

WTF not WHAT THE F–K as they say in Internet lingo, but rather  Winners Talk Frankly

WATOQ, Winners Answer Their Own Questions.

Using the Tenets of Winners, Alice is told, every problem has a solution: “If you couldn’t find the answer you needed, you could file a ‘trouble ticket,’ organized by six-digit numbers. Your manager would be cc’ed on any trouble ticket you filed, so new employees were cautioned to file them sparingly or risk flagging themselves as poor problem solvers.”

At one meeting, the young team leader mispronounces the word Tenet as TENANT, as in the TENANTS OF WINNERS — a mistake only someone like Alice (considered an editorial type in this crowd) catches but can’t share. She’s older than her bosses and doesn’t dare instruct them.

Sandberg and Zuckerman: dress code even for them?

Sandberg and Zuckerberg: dress code for her?

Nor does she change unwritten rules, such as: When visiting MainStreet’s midwest offices, women wear blazers, blouses and skirts, while men come and go in hoodies and jeans. This is so close to the bone (see photos of Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg), you hear yourself groan.

Finally, Alice learns that she must defer especially to Greg, the self-empowered youngest MainStreet brother and founder of Scroll. Greg has his own wisdom statement, often repeated, which is: We have to ask ourselves, by which he means the older generation’s truths may not apply to today’s realities, so “they” were wrong and we —Greg and his brothers — are right.

In a rare visit to her office, Greg looks at a stack of books on Alice’s desk that are soon to be released from New York publishers. He should know that Alice is one of the very few people outside mainstream houses to see these books so early, but instead, thinking of that “carbon-based” label everyone at Scroll uses by now, he says,

     “You really want to pollute the environment with that crap?”

      “Excuse me?”

      “No, seriously, I just got back from a fact-finding mission at the Strand.** That place is a tinderbox waiting to go up in flames. We have to ask ourselves, what kind of impact is all that paper having on our planet?” He shuddered….

Alice begins to tell Greg how she’s curating her first list of recommended fiction titles for the Scroll customer, but he interrupts.

     “All good stuff. But we have to ask ourselves, what does the customer really want, right?”

     “Right.” I was still getting used to Scroll speak, which involved a semi-Socratic tic of inserting “Right?” at the end of every sentence.

     “Wait, sorry, Greg, what do you mean?”

     “I mean, does the customer really want books with his coffee, or might he enjoy something else?”

     “Like …?”

     “I don’t know. Isn’t that your job?” Greg gazed at me through heavy-lidded eyes. Was he high?

     “I guess I’m not understanding your question.”

     “I’ll break it down for you. What’s the best way for us to gain traction in the marketplace?”

     “By creating a bookstore experience like no other? By giving customers something they can’t get anywhere else? Beyond that, I haven’t really thought –”

     “Well, start thinking, girl!” Greg squinted at the picture on my desk.

     “Hey, switching gears here, is that your family?”

     “Yes, the kids are older now but — “

     “Let me ask you, what video games do they like to play?”

     I laughed. “Much to my son’s chagrin, we don’t have any video games…I want my kids to be readers and to live in the real world — not some fake universe. Not to mention the violence.” I congratulated myself on adhering to the sixth tenet, WTF: Winners Talk Frankly.

Oh dear. Well, we know where that’s going to get her. You only talk frankly to the company founder if his attention span is longer than the three seconds he allows himself to “switch gears.”

[**DRIB: Don’t Read If Busy

It’s worth taking a moment to note that Greg refers to his “fact-finding mission at the Strand” as though walking into a bookstore is a dangerous, heroic quest. All he sees are stacks of glued and sewn paper that make no sense to him in the Brave New World of e-bookstores he believes Scroll is bringing to life.

But something happens to customers at the Strand — it’s just a thought but it has the power of a thunderbolt — and I wish it had struck Greg when he was there. That is: It’s one thing to imagine the virtual universe of Amazon/Scroll’s access to a million books in the e-atmosphere; but it’s quite another to walk along the Strand’s incredible 18 miles of new, used and rare books that customers can actually see, pick up, open and start reading right there.

These 2.5 million books don’t represent anything — they ARE our reality; they bring to us just about everything humanity knows at this moment (in the English language mostly); and have been valued and traded in this one bookstore for nearly 90 years.  That’s before and after the arrival of the Internet.

The Strand, interior shot

The Strand, interior shot from ceiling

It’s this thought — the astounding physical fact of the English-language world in book form right in front of you, surrounding you and if you’re not careful about to topple down on your head — that astonishes customers and staff alike, so of course Greg is unimpressed. To Egan’s credit, he is not a Jeff Bezos lookalike or a Mark Zuckerberg stand-in. He is a well-drawn Internet caricature with no curiosity, no sense of history and no interest in the way differences in customer tastes could strengthen rather than weaken a company like Scroll.

Of more importance to Greg: Everything he says has such kingly import that he needn’t worry about “staying on topic.” It doesn’t serve him to think more deeply than the platitudes he believes are making Scroll a success. He is a grown child, both a big baby and a paternalistic brat who should be out on the fringes but somehow feels all too recognizable in any business, especially the postmodern Internet start-up world.]

So now let’s turn back to see what we can learn from A Window Opens and the real-life Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar store ever, Amazon Books, which just opened last month in Seattle.

First a question: is Amazon Books in the University Village of Seattle really located “just up the road”  from the historic (founded in 1900) University Bookstore of the University of Washington? (From a map it appears to be a dozen blocks away.) If so, do you think Bezos could have found a location more distant from another bookstore that sells, you know, books?

University Book Store, U. of Washington

University Book Store, U. of Washington

I ask this because barging into the neighborhood of an existing independent bookstore and stealing its customer base by offering heavily discounted books was the predatory method that chain bookstores used to cripple the competition in the ’80s and ’90s and early 2000s.

You’d think Amazon for once wouldn’t make that mistake, if only for the PR advantage of no longer being considered The Internet Bully of All Time. But no. Even the New Republic said “it’s difficult not to see Amazon’s choice of location as yet another act of aggression toward indie bookstores.”

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Amazon Books, interior (not the Dish Room)

Second, here is an excerpt from Amazon’s welcome letter to customers, written by Amazon Books’ vice president, Jennifer Cast: The books in our store are selected based on Amazon.com customer ratings, pre-orders, sales, popularity on Goodreads, and our curators’ assessments. These are fantastic books! Most have been rated 4 stars or above, and many are award winners.”

Amazon Books: signs show just how "fantastic" these books can be

Amazon Books: signs confirm high ratings of customers

Okay, got it. Only good books at an Amazon bookstore, right? And Amazon wants you to know they are good because customers like you — your peers — have said so. Signs make it clear not to worry, you are secure knowing the books are “Highly Rated” with a positive customer comment printed out right there on the shelf.

[We figure Amazon didn’t fall for any phony wowzer comments the author paid for, right?  So let’s just bypass that conversation.]

Plus all titles, by the way, are sitting “face-out” on the shelf so you don’t have to lift your hand to pull a book out by its spine and turn it this way and that to examine the cover. Sort of like the Dish Room in the White House; kind of a static feeling. Books facing out take up so much space that Amazon Books offers a fraction of the inventory sold at an independent store, and yet customers on Yelp and other sites say the aisles are small and have that “cramp” feeling.

The real Dish Room at the White House

The real Dish Room at the White House

This is the difference between an Amazon bookstore offering statistically popular books and an independent bookstore employing buyers who choose books for different reasons than widespread acceptance.

In an independent store, the buyers meet with publishers’ sales reps as much as six months in advance to weigh the value of each title for every kind of audience.  There is some guesswork in this process — publishing is always a crap shoot, after all — and sometimes these buyers will recommend a title that offends some customers. Or at least, that is the hope. These buyers are looking for quality in messge and style; they trust that enough readers are out there who’ll seek out or take a chance on titles that might not be as popular as they are adventurous, off the grid, a little wild.

I wonder for instance if Lolita or Howl or The Color Purple or Lady Chatterly’s Lover or The Autobiography of Malcolm X or The Naked Lunch would have received 4+ stars from customers when these titles were first published — you know, when they were banned and reviewed with disgust and when they caused booksellers to be prosecuted simply for displaying them in the store.

Today you’ll find the modern equivalent in independent bookstores because that’s why these retailers ARE independent — an experienced buyer with vision and a sense of literary ambition for the store is always looking for the unpredictable, that rare opportunity to pique our interests.

On the other hand, at a store like Amazon Books, offering titles that are already established among readers is a safe, dull and (to me) insulting way to enter the retail market. Yes, there is reference to “our curators’ assessments” (sheesh, that word) but these titles seem confined to a “staff-favorites section” rather than as part of a buyer’s decision to mix up the inventory.

[Plus: The staff-favorites section at Amazon Books  includes several of Jeff Bezos’ own picks, isn’t that cozy?  Maybe we’re supposed to think, Oh good, Dad’s entered into the fun, since one of his favorites is Traps by his wife, MacKenzie Bezos.  Aw, Dad. you old softie.]

What’s missing at Amazon Books is that element of risk and adventure you can sense the minute you walk into an independent bookstore.  Of course, best-selling titles are everywhere in an indie bookseller, but so are books by authors nobody’s heard of who may be so original and fresh they just have to be read. Unknown, controversial, up-from-nowhere works may not appeal to everybody — they may, in fact, take your head off with their decidedly UNpopular views or style — but heavens, what kind of democracy would we have without that kind of choice?

So it isn’t just that Amazon Books looks like an expensive chain restaurant that’s been overdesigned in wood and signage. (How much of the  interior is “eco friendly” or derived from “reclaimed local materials” is not stated.) Rather, everything feels so tidy, so received, so Soviet, so data-molded that a blandness and prudency seem to settle over the place.

I’m sure many titles at Amazon Books do challenge us, but hell, you can get that kind of surprise from a spin rack in a drug store. What makes me nervous is the promise of statistical rankings (“4.8 Stars and Above”) that guarantee conformity.

What does novelist Elizabeth Egan have to say about all this?  A Window Opens shows how an Internet company like Amazon/Scroll not only limits our choices in books but corrupts the very language we use about the book business. Granted, fashions in word use come and go, like using “curate” because it sounds classier than “select,” or tossing in the term “carbon-based” so you’ll feel guilty about — well, whatever it describes.  But fashions are always short-term, thank heaven. The day everybody gets sick of “iconic” will herald a national holiday that I hope comes soon.

What scares me is that the narrowing of language leads to a narrowing of imagination, as represented in Egan’s novel by Greg and the Scroll team.  When workers see no difference between the TENANTS and the TENETS of Winners — or like Alice they can’t say they do without sounding unAmerican — the core message of Amazon/Scroll turns out to be: Stay low, use approved buzz words, don’t read (who has time?), be a team player, lean out and shut up.

One last thing about A Window Opens: It’s a great send-up by a former employee of the metastacized Amazon empire that’s consuming the world.  But it’s also a very good commercial novel with its own twists and surprises, its unexpectedly poignant moments about raising children and its intriguing subplots, some of which dont involve an expose of Amazon.

Woven throughout, for example, are Alice’s brother, seemingly liberated from capitalism;  her dad’s throat cancer (and the “Buzz Lightyear” appliance he uses for a voicebox); the children’s adjustment to Mom’s insane new job; and Nicholas’ own, very rocky transition from up-and-comer to failure to scaredy cat to independent thinker and Dad.

Plus there’s a very intriguing conflict between Alice and her best friend, who owns a terrific independent bookstore that may be the first to be knocked off by Scroll.  This store seems to be similar to Elisabeth Egan’s own neighborhood bookstore, Watchung Booksellers (of Watchung Plaza in Montclair, New Jersey).

Remembering how much she has valued this store, Egan commented recently that “Watchung Booksellers is the first place that my kids walked to alone.” This was just a casual comment made without much thought, but it’s a tribute as touching as anything Alice Pearce says in the book. It  means that the first time you let your kids walk anywhere on their own, you want the destination to be a trusted place where people know your children and keep an eye out to make sure they arrive safely. Local retail stores are like that, bookstores especially, because kids already know the way to story-time events, circle-time readings and the like.

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

Egan signing books at Watchung Booksellers

And, more important than I thought at first, A Window Opens is the story of yet another mother trying to “have it all” by going back to work in a job environment so dictatorial and punishing that it may ruin her life. Here is Alice’s advice to the family’s indispensable baby sitter — who at 18 is leaving the family to start her own career— but the message applies to many:

“… please don’t waste time wondering whether it’s possible to ‘have it all.’ Banish the expression from your vocabulary; make sure your friends do, too. A better question is What do you really want? Diving headlong into the second quarter of your life without asking this question is like going grocery shopping without a list. You’ll end up with a full cart but nothing to cook for dinner. Figure out what you feel like eating, and then come up with your own recipe for the whole messy, delicious enchilada.”

This is in character for Alice but I’m kind of disappointed that she didn’t say what A Window Opens tells us, that “having it all” is a family thing. Everybody gets to have it all if everybody pitches in. Husbands need to balance priorities — not just to do the dishes or pick up the kids up but to assume full partnership with Mom and tackle that surprising array of family needs — and, most of all, experiencing those unpredictable heart-stopping moments when the kids do something that’s hilarious and serious and in character for the self-actualized beings they are still to become.

I think that’s what the book really proposes. It’s sort of a fictional take on Sandberg’s Lean In, and again I’m impressed that for all we learn about Amazon-type companies “reinventing the future” in an alarmingly bland, somewhat willy-nilly and domineering fashion, the book’s most valuable inside look is at our own humanity in the face of enormous change.

 

 

 

 

 

Where Did that ‘Foreigner’ Go

People who make decisions about media — heads of publishing houses, TV producers, Hollywood studio chiefs— believe that most Americans aren’t interested in anything “foreign.”

an old cliche

Typical Arab? an old cliche

As a result, for many years, much of what we heard about people in the Middle East were stereotypes of “rag heads,” exotic belly dancers and cowardly “A-rab” soldiers running away when the real fighting began.

Then came the attacks of 9/11, and the only possible benefit: that unheard-of prospect of a first novel about everyday life in Afghanistan, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, selling in the millions. Since then an outpouring of novels and memoirs about the Middle East have been published that we might not have seen otherwise.

"The Kite Runner" published 2003 (Riverhead)

“The Kite Runner” published 2003 (Riverhead)

I don’t mean to say The Kite Runner will stand as a great or exceptional novel. As critics noted, the details are accurate and the story is told earnestly and sometimes grippingly. The author, too, is something of a phenomenon, a promising first novelist whose family was given political asylum in California, where he became an M.D. and was practicing as an internist while writing Kite Runner in English, his second language.

So: Intriguing story, commendable author and trustworthy descriptions of a country that most of us knew little about. What’s the problem?

Khaled Hosseini

Khaled Hosseini

Well, plenty, according to a 2009 essay I found only recently called Can the West Read? Western Readers, Orientalist Stereotypes, and the Sensational Response to The Kite Runner by an Occidental College student named Sarah Hunt.

Drawing from Orientalism, scholar Edward Said’s groundbreaking 1978 study of stereotypes about Arab culture, Hunt suggests that The Kite Runner uses simplistic Western ideas to make the Middle East “a cultural backdrop against which to create and celebrate Western identity.”

The plot, she says, reads more like an American coming-of-age novel than a story that might have emerged organically from modern Afghanistan. Americans shouldn’t think that by reading The Kite Runner, they’re “creating a ‘bridge of understanding’ between themselves and Afghan culture.”

'Orientalism' by Edward Said, 1979

‘Orientalism’ by Edward Said, 1979

I never thought people ran out to read The Kite Runner in a conscious effort to correct American ignorance or become better world citizens. Rather a phenomenal word-of-mouth said The Kite Runner was a terrific novel you couldn’t put down about everyday life in Afghanistan, a country we were currently bombing because of 9/11.

Fine, but remember, says Sarah Hunt: People don’t just read a novel for the story, and then go on to another story, and another.  We bring our own biases to the page. We seek confirmation of preconceptions that have been on our minds, perhaps subconsciously, for decades.

In The Kite Runner, Hosseini makes his protagonist, Amir, “less and less ‘foreign’ ” to the Western reader, says Hunt, and more an “extension of the imperial self by using the East, in all its forms, for his own Westernized benefit.”

Don’t you love academic language like that — so literary, so righteous, so nostalgic (you Western imperialists, you bums). So pointy.

But I’m glad that someone like Sarah Hunt is here to keep the critical conversation going. Americans  love The Kite Runner because we do learn a great deal — about boys and dads, games and customs, geography and money exchange in Kabul — against the backdrop of huge societal changes in Afghanistan, from Soviet occupation to the entrance of the Taliban.

Edward Said

Edward Said

Of course, that’s the plot. Hunt, like Edward Said,  is more concerned about form. If Amir becomes less and less “foreign” and more like Western readers, so then do Amir’s friend Hassan (the victim) , and Assef (the villain) become more “foreign.” Hunt believes each character plays out unseen stereotypes that reassure Western readers of the “inferiority” and “barbaric” nature of Orientalist (in this case Afghan) characters.

Something like that.  It’s easy to poke holes in Sarah Hunt’s essay because she, too, is guilty of simplistic reasoning. But it’s equally important to note that Can the West Read? represents a critical conversation that is vital to a free culture. This kind of questioning flows around every piece of art we see, and every work of commercial entertainment in front of us, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Unlike plainer, shorter reviews that tell us whether a work in question is good or bad, the kind of cultural questioning that Hunt represents stretches and tests the reader — challenges us to notice  prejudices that stop us from having the empathy to understand how “foreigners” themselves feel about being exploited over and over again in Western works.

'The Panther' by Nelson DeMille

‘The Panther’ by Nelson DeMille

Take for example those toughboy action-junkie spy thrillers. (Seven Days from Sunday, National Security, American Assassin) that make so often characters from the Middle East swarthy evil bad guys with bad teeth. An example would be an otherwise fine novelist like Nelson DeMille turning his knowledgeable-wiseacre detective, John Corey, into a swaggering fathead. In book after book (The Lion, The Panther) Corey single-handedly saves the world from Middle Eastern terrorists who need to be killed for the benefit of humankind. He wins, as Americans must, because after all, We’re #1.

The scimitar guy in 'Raiders' - who could blame Indy?

The scimitar guy in ‘Raiders’ – who could blame Indy?

These bad-guy Arab characters come out of comic-book fantasies, so why take them seriously? Remember in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the threatening black-robed giant Arab guy swings his scimitar around so dramatically that Indiana Jones just shrugs and shoots him dead? The audience exploded with laughter when I saw it in a theater. There was no opportune moment for a rational critic like myself to stand up and point out the problems of cheap humor against the We’re #1 backdrop of American big shot storytelling.  The audience couldn’t be critical because they know the Western hero is always going to win — he just gets more points when he does it humorously.

And Snopes.com extends the fun by reporting that Harrison Ford in his role as Indiana Jones was suffering from dysentery at the time, so he “persuaded [director Steven] Spielberg to try the scene this much shorter way. (One could say Ford was given “the runs” of the place.)”

"Intrepid archaeologist extraordinaire" or shoplifter of sacred objects?

“Intrepid archaeologist extraordinaire” or shoplifter of sacred objects?

Ha ha, those Snopes writers sure got into the spirit of a real “rag head” moment. “Indy” gets away with using his gun instead of a whip because the villain is too stupid to notice that white people are his superiors in every way.  Plus Ford and Spielberg didn’t have to feel guilty for filming that scene because Raiders was just a kill-the-desert-rat movie for Americans anyway. Not to mention a let’s- steal-treasures-from-the-primitives theme, but that’s another story.

But what about those American viewers?  Why would an American audience raised on the concept of free speech and enjoying more choices than just about anybody in the world, give up its discriminating voice for easy laughs at other peoples’ expense?

For the answer let’s turn to the Showtime television series Homeland and the very amusing stunt pulled by Middle Eastern street artists a week or so ago.  They were hired to spray paint “authentic Arab graffiti” on the walls of the show’s sets which had been built in Berlin, for Season 5.

'Homeland is racist'

‘Homeland is racist’

But these artists had something else in mind, and I don’t know which is more hilarious —

1) that the graffiti didn’t say things like “God is great,” as the artists were told to write, but rather “Homeland is racist,” “Homeland is a joke,” “Homeland is a watermelon” (i.e., a “sham,” a “fake”) — and nobody on the Homeland staff noticed.

Or

2) that the show’s co-creator tried to sound hip and cavalier about it by announcing to the press: “We wish we’d caught these images before they made it to air … but we can’t help but admire this act of artistic sabotage.”

Ha ha, sounds like something they’d say on Snopes.com except this guy at Showtime went on TV and put it in a press release.  He wanted to be witty and cool so he could dodge the real question, which is: You don’t have one person working on Homeland who speaks Arabic?

Why, Carrie, how you do stand out ...

Why, Carrie, how you do stand out …

And other questions that follow: You don’t have one fact-checker for scenes set in Iraq or Lebanon or Syria? You don’t care that CIA analyst Carrie Mathison is an agent trained in Arabic who botches words she should pronounce perfectly, or when the converted POW Brody prays with his shoes on (“a big blooper”), or when “a bustling metropolitan city” like Beirut is reduced to “dilapidated neighborhoods…(with) armed militias in jeeps terroriz(ing  residents) and Hezbollah commanders leaving their top-secret battle plans at the kitchen desk”?

Well, the producers don’t have to answer questions like that because they believe the audience doesn’t care. Homeland is a star vehicle for Claire Danes, goddamnit, so it doesn’t matter if Carrie’s blond hair flies everywhere as she runs around those filthy Middle East streets, or that she miraculously sneaks into a heavily guarded prison to find the one inmate who blurts out the show’s pivotal secret, or that the swarthy deodorant-needing Arab guards race in, missing Carrie’s miraculous escape by seconds.

Or is it the #25?

Or is it the #25?

That kind of slipshod action stuff doesn’t matter, because this is TV, where audiences check their critical standards at the door. I know I do. Do you ever care, for example, that surgeons on ER/Grey’sAnatomy/ChicagoHope/CodeBlack keep using a #10 scalpel blade when the obviously better #12 is sitting right there?  No, we want enough fake medical talk to get us into the scandal, the sex and the violence that make hospital shows so great.

I did love what a sardonic Tel Aviv critic said about Homeland being based on a successful Israeli TV series. The story in both versions is essentially the same, he said, but with this difference: In Israel, the show is about terrorists and the Mosad, while in the United States, it’s about terrorists and Claire Danes.

Madam and Mr. Cutie Pie

Madam and Mr. Cutie Pie

I thought that was so funny and so true that it shed new light on the reason a TV audience may silence its own critical voice. Give us romance, humor, action and stars we love, and we’ll tune in, period. (I so love Tea Leoni in Madam Secretary that it doesn’t matter how badly the show dumbs-down every political reality known to heaven. This Secretary of State does the dishes at home, for heaven sake, and she kisses that cutie pie husband Tim Daly over the soapsuds before flying off to stop nuclear war. What more can you ask from TV?)

Maybe that’s the reason CIA experts say about Homeland,  ”It’s a good show, but it’s not an accurate portrayal of what happens inside the military or the intelligence community.” Duh. They mean it’s a good show for TV — it’s got intrigue, back-seat sex and torture. Throw in a homemade suicide bomb for the POW to wear at a reception with the Vice President and it doesn’t have to be authentic.

That may be why viewers turn a deaf ear to blistering revelations such as a Washington Post review that Homeland is “the most bigoted show on television, “churn(ing) out Islamophobic stereotypes as if its writers were getting paid by the cliche.” (That’s true but listen, it’s more important to know if Carrie is pregnant or what?)

The larger problem is that American institutions take Homeland so seriously they’ve awarded dozens of coveted prizes  – Emmys! Golden Globes! SAGs, Directors/Producers/Writers Guild awards, even an AFI, Edgar, Television Critics and Peabody (whaaaat?) — for being high-minded, intellectually stimulating and instructive.

That’s what makes the street artists’ “Homeland is a joke” graffiti so delicious. They showed what can happen in a culture where free speech may seem less and less valued until — bingo — something truly subversive hits a nerve.

Heba Amin

Heba Amin

And thanks to a statement issued by the lead graffiti saboteur, the Egyptian artist Heba Amin, the message proved just how serious people from the Middle East take English-language TV.

“The very first season of Homeland explained to the American public that Al Qaida is actually an Iranian venture,” says Amin. “This dangerous phantasm has become mainstream ‘knowledge’ in the US and has been repeated as fact by many mass media outlets. Five seasons later, the plot has come a long way, but the thinly veiled propaganda is no less blatant.”

Heba Amin is a person who’s felt outraged and frustrated for a long time that American television not only gets away with shameful inaccuracies but contributes in dangerous way to volatile relations with countries already angry with the U.S.

But the fact that her crew’s graffiti endured censorship (if only somebody had known) proves this lesson: You can drive a big-budget, overproduced, propaganda-loaded and flat-out bigoted blockbuster down the throats of capitalist viewers and get away with it for a while. But somewhere, dissent is going to come out — not the truth but a truth. And it’s going to be heard because the people who make decisions underestimate the people watching.

True, Homeland will probably go on with higher ratings and the usual awards, but from now on, the fun for viewers will be watching the kinks and the mistakes and the slapdash marks of a true “watermelon” production.

Meanwhile, I’m glad I work with books rather than other media. It’s in books that readers and writers meet according to centuries-old literary standards that are embedded in our psyches. Does that sound high-falutin? Doesn’t matter. The critical conversation goes on every moment of every day, whether we’re ready to hear it or not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “Bad News = Good News” Rule

One of the things that’s always worried me about American journalism is the “Bad News Is Good News” rule.

That is to say that a murder, riot, scandal, war or earthquake is “good” because  it boosts circulation, while human interest stories about everyday life are run-of-the-mill, or “bad.”

After Roseburg: Obama calls on "news organizations"

After Roseburg: Obama wants media reports

True, it’s only human to be attracted to catastrophe and turn away from ho-hum goodness. But the job of the journalist, I’ve always thought, is to find the deeper story in the everyday, to write that story with a fresh angle and to bring to the surface every fact that might otherwise be overlooked.

President Obama spoke to this issue after the recent mass murders in Roseburg, Oregon, when he asked “news organizations to tally up the number of Americans killed by terrorist attacks, and the number of Americans killed by gun violence, and post these side by side in your news reports.”

Funny how nobody’s done that before. As Vox.com’s subsequent graph reveals, no one has been killed by foreign terrorists since 9/11, while an astounding 10-12,000 Americans have been killed annually by homicidal crazy people acting on their own and armed to the teeth with guns.

Vox.com graph: 0 deaths from terrorism, about 12,000 a year from crazy people with guns

Vox.com graph: 0 deaths from terrorism since 9/11, 10-12,000 a year from gun homicides

“We spend over a trillion dollars,” Obama pointed out, “preventing terrorist attacks” but nothing “on how we could potentially reduce gun deaths. How can that be?”

Well, it’s this insane “Bad News” rule: A mass shooting has occurred every day so far in 2015, and each time the press rushes in to exploit the Slaughter Scene with repeated coverage of bloodied victims, crowd hysteria, killer profiles, weeping families, think pieces on “how they [the killers] got their guns,” and the usual update about the “the divide” over anti-gun legislation that “reflects divisions between rich and poor, urban and rural areas” and zzzzzzzzz.

Deeper coverage happens before bloodshed. As Obama said, “our common life together” is at stake, It’s not the killer but the community we need to hear about. But each time it takes a  killer to bring reporters into a community in the first place.

Extending Forgiveness

The “bad news” rule came to mind over the summer when the  press rushed from one police shooting of an African American to another without providing wider or deeper coverage.

We did see quickie bios of victims on the news, parents worrying about drug and gang cultures and the endurance of the black church in the South. But these sidebars quickly moved aside for the guts of the story — outraged African Americans on the verge of terrible violence.

"In Face of White Supremacist Violence, Families Express Grief and Forgiveness" --CommonDreams.org

“In Face of White Supremacist Violence, Families Express Grief and Forgiveness” — from CommonDreams.org

 

Then came the shooting at Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and the astonishing moments afterward when family members faced the white supremacist charged with the murders and said  they forgave him.

        — “I’d like to thank you on behalf of my family for not allowing hate to win. We are the family that love built. We have no room for hate, so we have to forgive.”

        — “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms. You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know. Every fiber in my body hurts … As we said in Bible Study, we enjoyed you but may God have mercy on you.”

       — “Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate … they lived in love, and their legacies will live in love, so hate won’t win.”

This was not the usual media story of African Americans erupting with outrage after each episode of oppression and charging en mass to loot and destroy stores and homes.

This was, rather, a response of dignity and grace that called for sensitive discussions among journalists and a larger understanding of community life beyond the church.

"Mother of Amish School Shooter Goes Public About the Power of Forgiveness" -- FirsttoKnow.com

“Mother of Amish School Shooter Goes Public About the Power of Forgiveness” — FirsttoKnow.com

Remember the Amish families who forgave the murderer of 10 girls in the Amish school in 2006 — and the Amish man who held the killer’s sobbing father in his arms for an hour?  It was a cop-out for journalists to say “their religion” was the reason they could forgive.  Acts of mercy are everywhere in American life, but perhaps that’s the kind of “good news” that’s too subtle to report.

Devising Strategies

Earlier this year, I expected more thoughtful news coverage for the 50th anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights March from Selma to Montgomery.

But the press kept emphasizing the “bad news” aspect that kept selling the familiar story — police use of tear gas, charging horses and  billy clubs breaking the bones of marchers who were peacefully attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge 50 years ago.

The confrontation begins at Edmund Pettus Bridge

Before the violence on Edmund Pettus Bridge, 1965

That anniversary did call for film clips and articles showing the carnage on the bridge that occurred in 1965, of course. But there was a missing story, too, and this is what happened inside the African American community as protesters prepared for the the next try.

I’m taking the quotes below from Beyond the Possible (HarperCollins), an eye-opening memoir by the two founders of Glide Memorial Methodist Church in San Francisco, Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani.

Their book takes us behind the scenes of Glide’s stunning history as a civil rights mover-and-shaker for the last 50+ years. But what really touches the reader, I think, is the depth of humanity and the potential for positive change that they believe exist in all of us.

Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani at Glide, 1960s

Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani at Glide, 1960s

For example, after Cecil watched the Edmund Pettis Bridge attacks from his office at Glide, he got on a plane the next day and flew to Selma. He didn’t know anybody there but walked through the kind of community he knew well –   organizers, ministers, teachers, healthcare workers and food vendors who were working out of store fronts and tailgates without much money or volunteers to start up the march all over again.

A few days later Cecil flew back to San Francisco and put out a call from Glide for volunteers and contributions. Then he returned to Selma, this time not by himself but with two planeloads of volunteers and $45,000 in cash, which he divvied up among workers he had met in Selma during his first trip.

At that point, law enforcement was bolstering its ranks from every possible corner of Alabama while volunteers poured in from all over the country.  When Cecil joined the organizers who were laying out strategies to lessen police power,  something beautiful happened behind the headlines. As he recalls,

…the sheriff of Selma was deputizing civilians right and left and assigning them places on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the horrible conflagration I had seen on TV had occurred before.

Even now, the organizers of the march from Selma would need all the help they could get.

When a call went out for volunteers to distract the deputies from the main part of town, I joined a group of marchers taking buses to the mayor’s home to demonstrate for voting rights. This nonviolent act would probably be interpreted by law enforcement as a threat to life and property and would thus draw a number of deputies away from the city.

About 600 of us arrived at the house, but just as we assembled on the sidewalk and started our demonstration, the mayor’s wife ran out the front door with a gun in her hand. It was a little silver pistol.

“I’ve got six bullets!” she yelled. “I can take six of you niggers out!” We stood there facing her with our arms linked and were careful not to step on the mayor’s property. She appeared just wild enough to shoot but didn’t seem to know how to unlock the safety. 

State troopers process demonstrators after attempt to picket the house of Selma’s mayor.

State troopers process demonstrators after attempt to picket the house of Selma’s mayor.

It was a lethal yet humorous scene that got even more comical when the sheriff’s deputies arrived, each one carrying a baton, a cigar, a gut, and at least one gun.  Collectively they looked like the classic image of the big, hulking, Southern white cop with everything sticking out. Trying to line us up for arrest, the officers realized there were too many of us to fit in the overcrowded jail, so the deputy chief made an announcement.

“You niggers think you can come here and share a cell with Martin Luther King? Well, he’s the last person you’re gonna see.”

They commandeered our buses and loaded everybody back on to take us to a large high school gymnasium with two big basketball courts that would act as makeshift holding cells — one for women and one for men … We sang freedom songs from the many marches of the civil rights movement, and we even made up new lyrics.  Soon our voices, our clapping, and our cheering for justice resounded with a spirit that nearly lifted the gym off the ground.

[Cecil goes on to say the marchers were so committed — and having so much fun — that the police decided to release all 600 people. Nobody moved.]

We had no leader or spokesperson, no time to huddle or vote or make sure everybody agreed. And yet, all the people in both gyms just quietly shook their heads as if we had all planned for this moment all along.

Number of protestors swell from 600 to 25,000 on the third Selma march

Number of protesters swells from 600 to 25,000 on the third Selma march

To me, this was the potential of community at its rawest, most instinctive core. It proved as never before that when African Americans got together, a power they thought they never had emerged as a uniting force. It spoke of independence, of deciding for ourselves, and it spoke of unconditional acceptance — we trusted one another as deeply as we trusted our own families, and the deputies knew it. They were furious.

“Why, you niggers are crazy to stay here,” the chief deputy said.

“Book us, then!” people called out. “We’re not moving.” As long as our 600 remained, dozens of deputies had to guard us, or (so they thought) we’d tear the place up.

Quite the contrary — our message was nonviolent. It said:

We’re not going to fight you. We’re going to confront you with our love and with our goodness, because that’s who we are, in the face of who you are.  Even if you choose to use violence, we will bring about change. Against your violent inhumanity, we will match you with our nonviolent humanity, so that even you will be changed.

It’s too bad that scenes like this, which occurred everywhere in diverse African American communities throughout the civil rights movement, got lost in the shuffle of media emphasis on violence and brutality — and, too, on celebrity.

American history rightly focuses on Martin Luther King, Jr.,  as a gifted and charismatic minister  whose leadership inspired 25,000 demonstrators to take part in the third and final march from Selma to Montgomery. But the spirit that really did move mountains to change laws and cultural traditions came as well from millions of African Americans then, and continues to inspire millions today.

How that everyday trust among people binds communities in the face of an unknown future is the story of a lifetime for any serious journalist. But maybe it’s too “good” for mainstream media.

[Note to readers: I worked editorially with Cecil and Janice during the writing of Beyond the Possible.]

 

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015): A brief remembrance

One time I interviewed Oliver Sacks when he had a bout of knee pain and found it difficult “to negotiate your San Francisco hills,”  he said.

Oliver Sacks at the time of our interview, 1989

Oliver Sacks at the time of our interview, 1989

I think he was staying at the Mark Hopkins or Fairmont and tried to walk down Nob Hill to our interview, arriving sweaty and frustrated at the end.

My knee had problems, too, and I mentioned that walking backward downhill while leaning toward the pavement could make the trek a little easier. Parking meters were always there if one needed to grab onto something, and the only problem was feeling like a crab on the way down.

Going down California Street, Nob Hill

Tough on the knee: going down California Street

Dr. Sacks was delighted with the idea and wanted to try it, except for one thing. A person walking backward down a San Francisco hill must be “conspicuous, don’t you find?” And he had this confession: He might be too shy to do it.

But Dr. Sacks, I said, you work with people who act ‘conspicuously,’ to put it mildly, all the time! You’re famous for showing the world how to appreciate different behaviors because of the way you so eloquently describe what’s going on in the mind.

I pointed to Seeing Voices, his book about deafness that was the subject of our interview. There he writes beautifully about the use of Sign language, which he views as not just a substitute for communication but a “linguistically complete” language all its own.

Original hardcover, University of California Press

Original hardcover, University of California Press

Dr. Sacks picked up the book and embarked on a passionate account of how much he admired the hearing-impaired for developing Sign as both a language and a political movement (the book brings us a stirring account of deaf students’ protests at Gallaudet University in 1988).

But as for himself, Dr. Sacks said, the fact was that he was just not that courageous. When it came to speaking foreign languages or learning Sign, he would get so self-conscious that all he could do was “stumble and mumble” around.

We got off the subject so that he could describe how exciting the world of the deaf can be when you look at the ingenuity of the mind, especially when it’s nurtured by the community and culture around it.

Vintage edition, today

Vintage edition today

Once again I felt that thrill of discovery that only Oliver Sacks could convey. Along with his incredible knowledge as a scientist, and his instantly contagious astonishment at life in general, he had a gentle and unpresuming nature that somehow changed the world in uncountable ways.

And he leaves us over a dozen books that will remain “conspicuous,” thank heaven, forever.

 

 

The Harper Lee Backfire

Don’t you think the whole debacle about Harper Lee’s “new” novel sounds like a Christopher Guest mockumentary?

For Your Consideration movie poster

For Your Consideration movie poster

Guest’s satires on American foibles about dog shows (Best in Show), folksingers (A Mighty Wind), small town theater (Waiting for Guffman) and the Academy Awards (For Your Consideration) portray big, big hopes for greatness building up all over the place in ways that are so, so stupid and so incredibly American that we have to laugh, even if the parody stings a little bit.

Go Set a Watchman jacket

Go Set a Watchman jacket

In the case of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, big, big print runs and really absurd hopes for another To Kill a Mockingbird are backfiring all over the place while a lot of people are making big, big money whether the author wanted the book published or not.

You have to admit, it’s funny.

On the one hand, we have America’s beloved dad figure and heroic defense lawyer, Atticus Finch, turning into the worst, most fatuous and disgusting racist of the new century.

On the other, what timing! Go Set a Watchman comes out in the midst of kill-a-mockingbird-1edwhite police officers killing African American men more frequently than ever, the mass murder of an African American bible study group in Charleston and a President calling for new gun control laws that prompted this no-nonsense patriotic reply: Yes SIR, Mr. President! Our response to mass murder by yet another white supremacist is to … remove the Confederate flag! That’ll show we in the South mean business. Just ask Atticu– well, better not.

In fact, a mockumentary might use this occasion to get to the heart of the real problem about Harper Lee’s first book, To Kill a Mockingbird.

First, just to confirm: It’s a fine novel that deserved the Pulitzer Prize, and I’m glad it’s taught in schools.

But come on. To Kill a Mockingbird is a white person’s view of racism that’s set the tone for scores of books and movies since its publication in 1960. It says that bad white people created slavery a long time ago, so now good white people have to fix the damage. African Americans get to stay in the background for the sake of this heroic modern story.

John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me

John Howard Griffin, author of Black Like Me

This view also goes back to that awful 1961 book, Black Like Me,  in which a white person darkened his skin — under a doctor’s care, mind you — so that he could travel in the South and tell the world what it’s like to be black.

We couldn’t trust African Americans to tell us this same thing because after all, they’re black. It could be emotional and confusing to explain their experience to objective white America.  As Atticus Finch says in that new blockbuster from HarperCollins, “The Negroes down here are still in their childhood as a people.”

Isn’t he great?  Such a kind man, and he shows us why truly committed white writers are needed to set history straight. Wouldn’t Atticus have loved William Styron, for example, the humble white author who in 1967 wrote  The Confessions of Nat Turner in the voice of slave-turned-revolutionary Nat Turner.

The Confessions of Nat Turner

The Confessions of Nat Turner

“I was especially lacerated and hurt that [The Confessions of Nat Turner]  was labeled racist,” Styron told an audience at the Library of Congress. “That was hard to take for a writer who attempted to expose the horrors and evils of slavery.”  Aw.

But see? Here is another  kind white man generously pushing African American writers aside so that he can become the heroic figure. “Basically it is a very politically incorrect book written by a white man trying to seize his own interpretation  and put it into the soul and heart of a black man.” What a guy. He knew the words “politically incorrect” would shield him from increasing criticism only for a while. In the end, he said, what really mattered was creating “a powerful book that satisfied my ideal for a novel.” Who else would know?

Also, a good mockumentary about Go Set a Watchman would feature heartfelt comments from all the legal advisors who’ve been in and out of the author’s nursing home for years. You’ve got to hand it to them. They not only helped Harper Lee unearth the manuscript that she herself kept buried for decades.

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist, including "One Flew Over the Cosmo's Nest."

Tequila Mockingbird: Cocktails with a Literary Twist, including “One Flew Over the Cosmo’s Nest.”

They also took helped her apply for a trademark in 2012 on important To Kill a Mockingbird merchandise (there’s a Tequila Mockingbird guide to cocktails, you know), and create Mockingbird Co., a nonprofit company to control literary rights like a spinoff play that’s been running in the famous courthouse of Lee’s hometown (though it’s now closed, apparently because of the nonprofit).  Royalties from the novel still bring Harper Lee something like $3.2 million a year, so you know she’s anxious to pick up extra dollars for those hardworking agents and lawyers and friends who’ve recently stepped into her life.

The mockumentary would also interview the publisher at HarperCollins who ordered only a “light copyedit” of the Watchman manuscript so that nobody could be blamed for Atticus Finch turning into a big, fat American bigot.

Of course, the question could be asked:  What about those dedicated lifelong editors with high editorial standards who might have advised Harper Lee to be careful of shocking readers over the abrupt transformation of Atticus Finch? Well, those editors got to stay in the background, too. Who, after all, would want to change a word of the historic question Atticus poses to white people everywhere: “Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do  you want them in our world?” Nobody was going to touch that one.

As to marketing, that’s easy in the case of Go Set a Watchman, the publisher could say: You just make a big, big deal of its relationship to To Kill a Mockingbird and keep silent about its, um, difficult contents right up to publication date. That way readers could pre-order millions of copies and have the fun of discovering an all new Atticus Finch by themselves.

Finally, wouldn’t it be great if the mockumentary concluded with big, big dumpsters all over the country collecting piles and piles of a book everybody bought but no one wanted to read? Nothing like a giant literary embarrassment that never should have seen the light of day mucking up the legacy of “our national novel,” as Oprah Winfrey called To Kill a Mockingbird.

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison

As the credits roll, the camera could then go back to the classroom and show us books being taught that all audiences love, written for example by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou, Walter Dean Myers, Octavia Butler, Cornel West, Nikki Giovanni, Al Young, Ntozake Shange, Ernest Gaines, Terry McMillan, Zora Neale Hurston, Alex Haley, Sherley Anne Williams, Bell Hooks, Walter Mosley, Paule Marshall, Malcolm X, Michelle Alexander, Angela Davis, Edward P. Jones, Jewelle Gomez, Ishmael Reed, Marita Golden, Lalita Tademy, Frederick Douglass, Gloria Naylor, Henry Louis Gates, Cynthia Bond, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, Jesmyn Ward, J. California Cooper and Pearl Cleage, to name a only a few.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brooke Shields and the Publishing Revolution

This is how actor and model Brooke Shields begins her memoir, There Was a Little Girl (Dutton), about the death of her mother and former manager, Teri, in 2012:

“I’d written my own simple and rather short obituary about my mom and had sent in the required $1,500. The following afternoon I got a call from the [New York] Times saying they wanted to print it on the front page of the obituary section. I said they could position it wherever they wanted.

Teri and Brooke Shields

Teri and Brooke Shields in the 1970s

“They explained that they thought Mom deserved to have a more prominent placement. This made me feel like maybe after all these years, Mom would finally get some modicum of respect. And deep down we all want to know our moms deserve respect, don’t we?

“The Times added that they didn’t want me to pay the $1,500, but I explained that I was fine paying and thanked them for the offer. Suddenly the person on the other end of the phone stated that the obituary was, in fact, already being moved to a more prominent part of the paper, so a bit more copy would be needed. This was the first red flag.

“ ‘I am not giving an interview. Publish my written obit, please.’

“ ‘Well, we may just need one or two additional facts that you could clarify.’ ”

[The back-and-forth conversation goes on. The Times reporter keeps insisting; Shields keeps refusing. Finally, the Times reporter gets one question answered (about the location of a city) and that’s it. Brooke thinks it’s over.]

“A few days later … I was shocked and horrified to read a piece I’d known nothing about. It was a scathing, judgmental critique of my mother’s life. I gasped and stared, wide-eyed, at the nasty, venomous piece of so-called journalism.

“The first line read, ‘Teri Shields, who began promoting her daughter, Brooke, as a child model and actress when she was an infant and allowed her to be cast as a child prostitute . . . died on Wednesday.’ What an opener!

The 1978 People headline reads: "Brooke Shields, 12, stirs a furor over child porn in films"

The 1978 People headline reads: “Brooke Shields, 12, stirs a furor over child porn in films”

“The obituary’s author highlighted—completely out of context—the most salacious facts and quotes. He painted [my mother] as a desperate single mom who sold her daughter into prostitution and nudity for her own profit. He even distorted Mom’s most famous quote, mistaking her wry humor for deep abuse—’Fortunately, Brooke was at an age where she couldn’t talk back.’ This quote referred to the fact I’d been eleven months old when I shot my first ad, for Ivory soap, not to human trafficking of a minor into the sex trade.

“Who the fuck did this guy think he was to write about a woman he never knew? How could he hurl such vicious allegations when an obit was supposed to be fact based? The piece was shocking and of the lowest common denominator, which was especially terrible coming from somebody who called himself a reputable journalist.

“Reading the obit, I felt myself beginning to lose it. I started to take deep breaths, trying not to panic or pass out. I ran into the kitchen and began pacing around the table as I sobbed and rambled: Why are they so cruel? Why can’t they let her be? Why can’t they let her die without being nasty?  Why can’t they be kind to her just once? Why was it so easy and acceptable for him to degrade her? Where was the human decency? Someone’s mother just died.”

So: what does this excerpt say about the “publishing revolution”?

First, there is the obvious point that huge changes in computer technology in the ’80s-90s were bound to outstrip the arcane and creaky newspaper (and book) industry. What followed was the phenomenon of millions of readers leaving print for screen, and millions of writers publishing their own blogs, books and websites.

But the motivation that fuels a revolution rather than simply a transformation in publishing is this very outrage that launches Shields’ book — that of being shut out, exploited and dismissed by arrogant and self-serving “journalists” and publishers who believe they’re superior to the public they’re supposed to serve.

Brooke Shields in a scene from "Pretty Baby" (with Keith Carradine)

American Film, 1977 — Brooke Shields and Keith Carradine in “Pretty Baby”

When even a celebrity like Brooke Shields must grapple with the status of being an outsider, her anger is not only legitimate but representative of people across the world who are furious with media entitlement.

Granted, Teri Shields was an easy target — she did allow photos of her very young nude daughter, she did manipulate the fashion and magazine industries, and she did work the Hollywood system to get Brooke cast as a prepubescent prostitute in Pretty Baby and sex kitten in Blue Lagoon. 

But none of that, Brooke insists, “damaged” or “wounded” her, as press stories suggest. Early on, she even grew accustomed to that brutish tendency of magazine publishers to make controversial subjects like Brooke and her mother defend the media’s rapacious appetite for scandal.

New York magazine, 1977. The caption reads: "Brooke is twelve. She poses nude. Teri is her mother. She thinks it's swell."

New York magazine, 1977. “Brooke is twelve. She poses nude. Teri is her mother. She thinks it’s swell.”

What did cause hardship in her life (Teri’s alcoholism, for example) is, Brooke insists, for her discuss through that fine old platform for personal  truth, the full-length book. 

In the case of the NYT obit, Brooke Shields is right: It’s inexcusable for a journalist to take that judgmental tone. When it comes to an obituary, she says, the facts of a person’s life are sacred (as every obit writer used to know).

Her point is that readers, even sources, have no power when it comes to anything that will increase audience ratings. Where was the human decency? she says about the New York Times in particular. After all, someone’s mother just died.

 

Radio Bookmobile, Program #2, April 8, 2015

H Is for Hawk
Helen Macdonald

Doris: This is a beautiful passage from a new book called H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald, a British naturalist and falconer. It’s about a period when she the author battling grief after her father died and began dreaming of hawks after the death of her father.  This passage doesn’t mention her grief, but it’s a parallel theme to the discovery that emerges later:

The birds she studied with a team of scholars…

“were goshawks, and one in particular. A few years earlier, I’d worked at a bird-of-prey centre right at the edge of England before it tips into Wales; a land of red earth, coal-workings, wet forest and wild goshawks. This one, an adult female, had hit a fence while hunting and knocked herself out. Someone had picked her up, unconscious, put her in a cardboard box and brought her to us. Was anything broken? Was she damaged? We congregated in a darkened room with the box on the table and the boss reached her gloved left hand inside. A short scuffle, and then out into the gloom, her grey crest raised and her barred chest feathers puffed up into a meringue of aggression and fear, came a huge old female goshawk. Old because her feet were gnarled and dusty, her eyes a deep, fiery orange, and she was beautiful. Beautiful like a granite cliff or a thundercloud. She completely filled the room. She had a massive back of sun-bleached grey feathers, was as muscled as a pit bull, and intimidating as hell, even to staff who spent their days tending eagles. So wild and spooky and reptilian. Carefully, we fanned her great, broad wings as she snaked her neck round to stare at us, unblinking. We ran our fingers along the narrow bones of her wings and shoulders to check nothing was broken, along bones light as pipes, hollow, each with cantilevered internal struts of bone like the inside of an aeroplane wing. We checked her collarbone, her thick, scaled legs and toes and inch-long black talons. Her vision seemed fine too: we held a finger in front of each hot eye in turn. Snap, snap, her beak went. Then she turned her head to stare right at me. Locked her eyes on mine down her curved black beak, black pupils fixed. Then, right then, it occurred to me that this goshawk was bigger than me and more important. And much, much older: a dinosaur pulled from the Forest of Dean. There was a distinct, prehistoric scent to her feathers; it caught in my nose, peppery, rusty as storm rain.

Pat: Here is rich, dense writing that really hits every physical sense of the reader’s body. We feel that bird, touch its bones “light as pipes,” inhale its “prehistoric scent” and most of all — well, this really brought it visually home to me — we see this “meringue of aggression” coming out of the box to “completely fill the room.”

Doris: Well, this is a dream, so we know that’s not true, and yet we understand the exaggeration. Same with the bird being “muscled as a pit bull.” Well, of course not, but we get it. So much is implied, and so descriptive: the scent of the bird’s feathers: peppery and rusty. I can almost smell it.

Pat: Yes, this goshawk is both real and imagined, something “bigger than me and more important,” like a “dinosaur pulled from the forest.” She too is being pulled out of her own box of despair.

—–

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena
Anthony Marra

Pat: Last time on The Bookmobile I read a passage about upended toilets covering bombs that hadn’t exploded after they rained down on a village in Chechnya during wartime.  This scene is so unusual and so gripping, it’s typical of the crazy and amazing things we learn, as well as the incredible writing found in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra.

One thing that struck me here is the way people in war have to adjust to the sudden disappearance of loved ones who may never be seen again.  In this scene Sonja, a surgeon who’s spent a great deal of energy purchasing an ice machine on the black market for her decrepit hospital, has just realized that her sister has been kidnapped by men who’ll sell her to a sex trafficking ring. Eventually, once used up by the clientele, she’ll be murdered.

It’s in that state of shock that Sonja walks around her apartment until she comes upon a tray of melting ice in the kitchen. The process of solids turning liquid catches her eye as she ponders the way death turns people from physical bodies we can touch to memories that cling to us emotionally and run over us like sheets of water.

You know how when you first pull the ice cube tray out of the freezer and it’s all solid and crisp and squared off by the cold?  Well, this is what Sonja discovers after the tray has been sitting there for a while.

“Each cube was rounded by room temperature, dissolving in its own remains, and belatedly she understood that this was how a loved one disappeared. Despite the shock wave of walking into an empty flat, the absence isn’t immediate, more a fade from the present tense you shared, a melting into the past, not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.”

It’s a stunning metaphor, and it suggests for people in grief that sometimes losing the physical body is almost the easy part. It’s the memory of that person that stays with you for a very long time because it isn’t solid — it’s intangible in remembrance;  there’s nothing to hold onto.. The loss feels like a slow, excruciating dissolve, to repeat this part of the quote. It’s

“not an erasure but a conversion in form, from presence to memory, from solid to liquid, and the person you once touched runs over your skin, now in sheets down your back, and you may bathe, may sink, may drown in the memory, but your fingers cannot hold it.”

Doris: It’s interesting that of all the profound images in this book—those turned-over toilet bowls covering unexploded ordinance, in particular—the description of the ice cubes melting is one that stopped me in my reading. I wasn’t exactly sure why, but I think you’ve explained it here, Pat: that physical softening, an “excruciating dissolve,” as you put it, that mirrors Sonja’s loss.

This was a book, our listeners might want to know, that we read for Pat’s book group in Point Reyes, and one that lives up to the high praise it received. It’s also a first novel for the author, Anthony Marra, whose photo in the back of the book suggests he’s no more than 16 years old.

It’s funny — before reading this book I felt ignorant of Chechnya and found myself avoiding news about the country and its tormented history. Now that I’ve devoured this book I can’t get enough of Chechnya and am looking forward to reading The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen, which just came out.

It’s about the two Chechen brothers named Tsarnaev who bombed the Boston Marathon a year ago, and I think no one could report this story better than Gessen,  the Russian-American author of a truly eye-opening book about the rock-resistance band Pussy Riot, and a tough-minded biography of Vladimir Putin.

The Brothers is an important story because the two Tsarnaev brothers were descendants of ethnic Chechens whom Joseph Stalin deported to Central Asia along with hundreds of thousands of others. How a dictator can simply ban an entire population to another country is both impossible and understandable when you read about it in a work of fiction as good as A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

—–

About Bunin
Susan Trott

West Marin Review, Volume 4

Doris: Susan Trott  is a whacky, funny novelist, but in this story she gives us something very serious. Bunin was Anton Chekhov’s biographer, and he’s thinking back on their first meeting at the seashore some sixty years before. There Bunin is so  intimidated by the great Russian writer that he thinks only sophisticated words should be used. So he begins with an attitude of dismissal.

“ ‘Big.’

“How full of disdain I was for that word. Bunin smiled to himself. Chekhov, my Antochka, however, seemed to relish it, seemed to delight in its apt discovery. But I, 20 years old, ten years younger than he was, full to the brim with the egotism of youth, in my mind patronized such a paltry adjective to describe the sea, while far better words coursed through my mind how I would describe the sea. For instance, how beneath its glittering serenity lurked the lassitude of death….

“But! Bunin remembered, I was also cowed at the time because he was Checkov, and if he believed the word ‘big’ to be descriptive, I was on the wrong track entirely. I would like to write in my book how I trembled in his presence at that first meeting, in Yalta, at the edge of the Baltic. I’d been waiting hours for him to pass by. It was not a chance meeting at all, more like what they would call a stalking. And then I would like to tell how he sat and talked to me with the utmost friendliness, his eyes shining through his pince nez, so genuine and modest.

“He asked me to come see him the next day at his villa and then, as we continued to talk, sitting on that wall, overlooking the sea, how dismayed I became that this conversation, going on so long, might replace the next day’s invitation. Why meet this young man again so soon, he would think, and be bored anew?”

Doris: It’s the language that appeals to me with this excerpt. For instance, the use of the word patronize: Bunin “patronized such a paltry adjective” as “big,” meaning he thought of the word condescendingly. The year of their meeting is 1890, and though Bunin is in his 80s when he writes this, I feel as if I’m hearing a turn-of-the-century sensibility.

Pat: But you know, the first word that comes to mind when anybody sees a body of water as large as the Baltic  is that word, “big.” We live on the coast next to an ocean, and every time I see the water, I think to myself, “it’s so big!” If we tried to say, “it’s so immense!” or “enormous,” we’d feel like a phony.  So it’s kind of amusing that the word “big” IS “paltry” compared to the way a great master of language like Chekhov could use it, but he chooses it just the same. So Bunin is right on both counts.

Doris: I’m also impressed that Susan Trott captures Bunin with unexpected depth: his near-embarrassment in the present at the inexperienced writer of half a century ago who dared to disdain a simple adjective then. (In fact, we’re not even sure he’s almost embarrassed. Maybe he still thinks “big” was too paltry.) His love for Chekhov, to whom he refers with the affectionate “Antochka.” His careful way of arranging to meet Chekhov—what he sees as “almost a stalking.” His fear back then that he would bore the master with his prattle. And look how much Susan Trott reveals about Bunin’s description of Chekhov: friendly, shining eyes, the pince nez, Chekhov’s modesty. The scene: the two of them, sitting together on the sea wall, their legs probably dangling like two new friends (Bunin so hopes!) gazing out to sea….

—–

The Orphan Master’s Son
Adam Johnson

Pat: Dory, you and I were surprised that this Pulitzer Prize winning novel wasn’t mentioned very much during the recent e-mail-hacking fiasco at Sony Motion Pictures — do you remember?  This and apparent threats from the North Korean government followed release of the latest Seth Rogan gross-out movie, The Interview.

I say gross-out because it stars two typically dumb and dumber American stoner-journalists played by Rogan and James Franco, who cuss and copulate and stuff things up their posteriors when they find themselves ordered to assassinate North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.

Quite surprisingly, once you get past the toilet and genital humor, The Interview is a revealing and funny movie. Kim Jong-un is portrayed as a very smart, media savvy guy who deftly exploits American narcissism to his own ends.

That works in a simplistic movie, so enough kudos for Seth Roganbut it’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel called The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson that goes much deeper in a literary way to provide us with one of the most knowledgeable and penetrating works of fiction we’ll ever see about North Korea — and one of the best novels I’ve read.

For one thing, this story about a soldier who’s trained to be an assasssin, a kidnapper, a sailor, a tunnel explorer, a diplomat and an interrogator is a blistering indictment on propaganda as a way of life, not only in North Korea but in the United States. Often couched in Communist lingo, these exaggerated statements are supposed to evoke pity and disgust at the self-indulgent and backward ways of Americans.

“[America is] a crime-laden land of materialism and exclusion, where huge populations languish in jail, sprawl urine-soaked in the streets, or babble incoherently about God on the sweatpants-polished pews of megachurches.

These observations are funnier when you consider they’re all true in a way.

The American guitar, which most North Koreans have never seen, is described as theinstrument of choice [in the United States] for playing “the blues,” which is a form of American music that chronicles the pain caused by poor decision-making.”

When an American athlete leaves after a visit, “her departure was a sad one, as she was returning to America and a life of illiteracy, canines, and multicolored condoms.

Doris: I also read this book and loved it. There are lots of surprises in it, but the descriptions of life in North Korea, the brutality, the insanity—all of which the reader absolutely believes—though how could the author know all this about a country that remains so secretive and unknown to the western world?—causes you to constantly be shaking your head in wonder. And there is as much to laugh at here as to be horrified by: remember, Pat, the part where they talk about “canines”?

Pat: Right, mention of “canines” occurs several times because in North Korea, dogs as pets are illegal and unthinkable.  “The canine (is) an animal not meant to be domesticated,” we learn. If you say to a dog, “sit” or “lie down,” you’re guilty of using  “indolent phrases from capitalism.” Dogs in North Korea are raised in warrens, as are ostriches and rabbits and goats, so the way Americans treat dogs is seen as possessive and maniacal.

“You must never hurt a dog in America,” a North Korean expert says. “Dogs are considered part of the family and are given names, just like people. Dogs also have their own beds and toys and doctors and houses, which should not be referred to as warrens.”

The question is later asked if dogs in America have their own groomers, their own food, and their own aisles in supermarkets.  “Oh no,” says the expert, “that would never happen.”

What do North Koreans learn from all this? Discovering that in Texas, hunting dogs are given treats by their owner, the North Korean visitor “understands that in communism, you’d threaten a dog into compliance, while in capitalism, obedience is obtained through bribes.”

Doris: I’ve got to say, this is one of the best books I read last year. There are no false moves. The story is fascinating, the characters drawn beautifully. The writing is sophisticated and smart. Never a cliché, no manipulation of the reader by the writer—which is something I’d like to talk about another time.

—–

The Medic
Leo Litwak

Doris:  Leo Litwak is a novelist and journalist in the Bay Area who’s been a professor at San Francisco State University for 30 years. He served as an Army medic during World War II, as were thousands of others, but what attracts me to this passage is its simplicity. He was 18 at the time and seems to want only to state, as clearly and succinctly as possible, the reality of combat in Belgium as the war came to an end in 1944.

“The captain told us, ‘When you hear the order to attack, stand up and start marching and firing and keep marching and firing and don’t run, don’t hit the ground, don’t take cover, don’t lose your intervals, always stay in line with the advance. It doesn’t mater that you can’t see what you’re shooting at.’

“Captain Dillon called this maneuver ‘marching fire.’

When we used marching fire, I had to force myself to rise and start marching. I walked into enemy fire and didn’t hit the ground, didn’t start digging, didn’t wiggle on my belly toward the nearest tree, didn’t hug the ground and hide my face. I walked at a steady, modest pace, buddies strung out to the left and right, utterly exposed. It was against all my inclinations. I was as terrified and resentful as if I had been offered as a sacrifice to a god in whom I had no faith.

Doris: I know nothing about war, about the rules of war — the idea that the captain will ask these men to walk into their possible death, and that the men will do it, even if they have to force themselves to. Could I do that? The author is terrified and resentful, and he does exactly as he’s told. How is that possible? What kind of brainwashing is necessary for this to be possible? All of this is suggested in this short passage.

Pat: I think they’re taught in boot camp that the only way to survive the war is to do exactly what they’re told — after all, if the troops give into fear, they’ll be killed.  No wonder Leo Litwak writes with such minimalism — he’s so terrified his sentences are skeletal, like stick figures.  And yet that word “resentful” comes through; they may have turned him into an unquestioning soldier, but how could we miss that last line: “I had been offered as a sacrifice to a god in whom I had no faith.”

Doris:  We get it. He doesn’t have to say another word.