Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, November 14, 2000





I thought I knew what to say as emcee of the 50th anniversary celebration of the hard-working Friends of the Oakland Public Library, or FOPL (pronounced "fopple," oh well), but boy what a great lesson awaited us all when the program started.

It was my job to introduce young people performing in "cultural acts," a label that usually induces stifled yawns among even the most dedicated supporters, but in this case the teenagers playing jazz from the Oaktown Jazz Workshops, directed by a gifted trumpeter named Khalil Shaheed, greeted us with an exceedingly professional and hip sound as we took our seats.

A hush stilled the crowd while the group of six high school musicians expertly maneuvered through jazz pieces written by the likes of Thelonius Monk, each player taking off on riffs that would have astonished the old master.

And yet at the same time, these were kids, after all, inexperienced and without stage presence, standing awkwardly between solos with heads hung shyly, shoulders hunched and eyes flipping everywhere for a sneak look at the audience. Meanwhile the music had the purity of cream, it went down so beautifully.

The same pheonomenon happened with other groups - the Chinese Lion Dancers, Grupo Folklorico Tlapalli (traditional Mexican dances) and especially three competition-winning fifth-grade "oratorical" speakers who taught us all the difference between a recited poem (quietly read) and an orated poem (dramatically presented).

The oratorical kids marched stiffly onto the stage in their all-business, burning-cheeks manner, their fresh and youthful faces nervously intent on the performance at hand.

But then something snapped; all self-consciousness fell away and, well, the art took over. These unseasoned performers seemed infused with the power of the poem, standing tall, speaking/orating with authority and insisting the audience attend to the message, the discipline, the meaning and the permanence of the work.

So we looked at them but felt the poet coming forward: "They say wait -- well, I waited," began David Smith, looking furious and impatient, pacing the stage. "For a hundred years, I waited . . . in breadlines, at back doors, on chain gangs, in stinking colored toilets . . . " each word punctuated by a pointing finger or pounding fist, deliberately histrionic, undeniably mesmerizing.

Audience members responded personally and often, increasingly yelling out to these unflappable kids, "that's right," and "yes sir," or "yes ma'am," then stood and cheered with that mixture of gratitude and pride that comes when you start out hoping young performers will get through it and end up blindsided by their talent and courage.

It occurred to me throughout the afternnon how everyone in the book biz - or the dance biz, or the jazz biz or the poetry biz - shares a common passion: This is the knowledge that it's a privilege to assist a process that somehow brings an idea from the author/artist/composer's mind to the reader/listener/viewer's mind.

I don't care how many people have come to the "new" book business for the money or the power. Whenever anyone passes a book or poem or other artistic piece along to somebody who loves it, the thrill is inexpressible.



Further to our discussion here in #195 with Meredith Maran about "Class Dismissed," her eye-opening book about one year in the life of an American high school that could either be America's noblest experiment or another Columbine in the making, comes the gripping and unforgettable Todd Strasser novel for young adults, "Give a Boy a Gun" (Simon & Schuster; 145 pages; $16; buy online at www.hicklebees.com).

Structured as a kind of oral history about a tragic incident at the fictional but very real Middletown High School, the book weaves the voices of teachers, students and parents as they struggle to make sense of what happened during events everyone witnessed but no one understood.

Through each person's lens, we meet Brendan and Gary, two isolated, painfully lonely boys who are branded as wimps and losers by the popular kids - that is, when they are paid attention to at all.

What strikes us from the beginning as a familiar clique system in high school becomes the kind of cruel and barbaric hierarchy that routinely isolates and humiliates those lower down in the caste. Tension rises from problems at home and school that no child should ever have to face.

"Brendan and Gary got picked on," says one student. "That's a fact. We all did. Little guys; fat guys; skinny, gangly, zit-riddled guys like me. Anyone who wasn't big and strong and on a team got it."

What happened when you "got it"? "You're walking down the hall, minding your own business. You see this guy, and he just sneers at you and says, 'Hey, faggot.' Thing is, to him it's nothing . . . But a week later you're still asking yourself, why'd he have to do that? Why'd he have to pick you?"

Soon the "nudging" and "jostling" in crowded halls become shoving, jeering, punching and knocking-down of identified "losers."

Football players and cheerleaders remain at the top of the hierarchy at Middletown and the city that surrounds it. Merchants, police, administrators look the other way when athletes break the rules or law. Teachers give them passes if they're late to class, punish others for the same violation.

"There is an unwritten law here about the treatment of athletes," says a teacher. "You may discipline a student athlete up to a point. But it must be an absolutely extraordinary situation for you to do anything that would impinge on that athlete's ability to play for his team. To do so would be to invite the worst kind of scorn."

Coaches seem to conspire with players' bad behavior. "Once, in gym, we were out in the field a couple of days after a big rain," a student remembers. "[Two football players] push me down. Each one grabs a leg, and they drag me through a couple of muddy puddles. I'm drenched with grimy water and smeared with mud, and [Coach] Bosco comes over, and I swear he's having a really hard time not grinning."

We learn that bullies force Brendan to endure "the swirly" when they hold him upside down by the ankles and dunk his head in a toilet bowl. His emails to Gary grow darker and more violent. Both talk about revenge and suicide.

Strasser is so even-handed with these quotes that we see the mosaic forming before our eyes without anyone - parent, teacher, football player, coach, counselor - emerging as a villain. Suspense builds with excruciating deliberation toward the chapter titled, "The Day It Happened."

At the same time, all the issues - drugs, divorce, racism, video games, handguns (and semiautomatics!) in the home, sex, classism, community standards (or lack of), suicide rates - are discussed with intelligence and insight on a general level even as they dovetail with specifics about Brendan and Gary.

It all adds up to the kind of book you can't put down because there's a mirror on every page. Looking back on the day that Brendan and Gary enact their terrible revenge, a teacher says, "Can't you see why they were doing it? They had no protection. They couldn't get away from the bullies and tormentors."

The idea that school must, first of all, be a safe place, is echoed by the principal in Maran's "Class Dismissed" when the school is in flames and further violence lurks outside the fence, which itself was built after a rash of stabbings and shootings.

But we are the ones who feel the lack of a safe place in the outer environment, where professional athletes are idolized and routinely excused from violating laws against drugs, rape, drunkenness, assault and even murder.

Strasser backs up his story with statistics and provides at the end of the story an astonishing list of violent episodes that occurred under a chapter titled "While This Book Was Being Written."

There's a theory in the children's book field that young adult novels often deal with painful issues in society sooner and more matter-of-factly, and with greater authority, than do many books written for adults.

"Give a Boy a Gun" proves that theory with such eloquence and dedication to the truth that it's hard not to agree with Strasser's plea in the back of the book for stronger gun control measures and an outright ban of semiautomatic assault weapons.



Dear Holt Uncensored:

I am the parent of a former student at Berkeley High School. Your article about Meredith Maran's "Class Dismissed" touched me deeply.

It made me realize how our son Jerry, who graduated from BHS some years ago, still seems to mirror his alma matter, including all the school's contradictions.

I remembered how Jerry, when he entered Berkeley High, traded in his best friend from his early years for the multi-racial crowd of jocks at BHS who seemed drawn together by the promise that being different was OK - that difference was a reason to be a crowd.

The basketball, baseball, football fields/courts became the mediation tables..the mixers, for Luis, the working class Latino kid; Dinh the Vietnamese son of restaraunt workers: Spencer and Barry, the white kids from the "flats" with Lefty parents (Barry's terribly poor); our son Jerry the son of white political activists in the solid middle class; Victor is from the Arab American middle class; and Stuart from the African American middle class.

After Berkeley High, Dinh went to work at the restaurant. Spencer has graduated from Princeton and went on to graduate school, though Jerry has lost touch. Luis is in jail for murder. Barry has graduated from the University of Chicago and gone on to grad school.

Jerry lost touch with him, too - in fact as Jerry became more and more lost, he did not stay in touch with most of his high school friends. Stuart, like Jerry, barely got through college, then floated around, and Victor, the one who never quite joined the crowd, but hung out with them anyway because he wanted to be with Jerry, went on to a good college and, last time we saw him, was clear, as he was from the time he was 14, about following his dreams to go to medical school.

Jerry took African American classes at Berkeley High, went on to minor in African American studies in college and still hangs with a very mixed crowd racially, class and familywise. We love that about him.

At the same time, he seems unable to sort out who his models are, and for what kinds of success. He is a working/middle class, white/mixed race, traditional/alternative family guy. This is his background. This is what he learned in high school and at home. At Berkeley High, success was as much at shared tables as at the one where only the privileged, indifferent folks sat.

His friends who were white found direction. Two of his friends of color never "made it out." The determined loner, albeit of color, may be a doctor by now. Jerry and Stuart were caught in the middle, it seems.

Perhaps it is because his world was opened to so many alternatives that he is so confused about taking any. Or maybe the world he was put in only exsited for some small time during the 1980s at Berkeley High. Maybe it was a sell job that didn't work in the real world.

Maybe it did work, and it is still too early to tell.

Whatever, Jerry' story and Meredith Maran's book tell us that berkeley High School continues to be one of America's greatest laboratories.

You really stirred up some stuff on this one.

A Parent in Berkeley

Dear Holt Uncensored:

[About Amazon.com's offer of selling used titles on webpages that sell the same titles as new books]: Amazon has been selling used books for some time, and I thought it was peculiar. On two instances, I intended to buy a new copy but the webpage announced that a used copy in very good condition was available at considerably less, and I bought the used copy in both instances. And indeed, as promised, they were good-as-new.

I mentioned this to a bookseller friend of mine, remarking how odd it was that Amazon would steer me to a cheaper copy. Her response: perhaps not as odd as it may seem. She thought it was likely, certainly possible, that Amazon actually made more money per copy of a used book sold than per copy of a new one. In which case, bad news for the publisher, bad news for the author, but good news for Amazon.

Food for thought!

Jed Mattes
New York

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I tried to find Greatunwashed.com but my internet server said no such address exists. Meanwhile, iUniverse is getting worse and worse. Now they've flopped a photo in one of my books and not only say they can't fix it, but that they have the final say on all matters. You can imagine how much that statement delighted me. Why couldn't I have just opened a lawnmower repair shop?

A Reader

Holt responds: Good heavens, the site recommended by David Loye is www.Greatunpublished.com, which David thought was a terrible title but I think is wonderful as it acts as a tongue-in-cheek call to the "great unwashed," meaning all those not in the system. A bit of shorthand (or was it is a senior moment?) laid ruin to the reference, however. My apologies to Greatunpublished.com, which looks like a great site indeed.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I fear that Vella Munn misunderstood me, believing I implied that writers aren't writing quality books. No, no, no, I don't believe that, and I apologize from the bottom of my heart to anyone who might have thought I did. I love writers. Anyone with the wherewithal to finish a book and then shop it to agents and publishers qualifies for sainthood. If I ran the world, writers and teachers would make more money than anybody.

Unfortunately, no one's elected me empress of the universe. Yet.

My mantra is that people need to focus on what they can do to really effect change and improve situations. I think complaining about Amazon is tilting at windmills. I have my own reasons for not using Amazon's new program, but it's got big potential for profits for them so they're unlikely to ditch it.

I'm not trying to minimize the difficulties or complexities, just focus people's energy in the right direction. Writers, for example, need to find ways to keep their books in print. That's a complex issue, but there are changes that might make it better. Writers should look at things like e-publishing and print-on-demand and find ways to make those work for them. If those two things live up to their potential, it could be great for writers.

By the way, those things could also drastically impact the used and out-of-print business. We could find ourselves buggy makers staring at the age of the automobile. That's all right. We'll either adapt, or we'll become reclusive old cranks refusing to acknowledge the 21st century. Both scenarios have their appeal.

Julie Fauble
Century Books
Evergreen, CO

Dear Holt Uncensored:

As a writer who has finally published a novel (after years of sympathetic turn-downs by agents who felt it wasn't "marketable") and reached an audience through a small SF press, using print-on-demand, Ingram and now Amazon.com, bn.com and borders.com, as well as making the rounds of sympathetic bookstores like A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books (they are wonderful) in San Francisco and The Gotham Book Mart in my hometown of New York City, I think the shift in publishing options available for writers is nothing short of a miracle.

I agree with Jane Smiley that we as writers have to expect not big financial rewards but the joy of feedback and the incentive to keep writing. (Yes, I have a day job and I'm not quitting.) I do believe that the urge to write is both gift and curse, but it gives meaning to my life, and I think we midlist types will only poison our brains by constantly thinking about money as the primary reward for our work.

Which brings up the point about Amazon.com reselling our books while they're still in print: Didn't we all grow up pouncing on used books as our affordable route to heaven? Are these writers saying that somehow their books should go out of print before they can be sold as used books? (Be careful what you wish for.....)

That said, I was stunned to see that someone is selling a single copy of my book ("The Girl Pretending to Read Rilke") for $10 more than it can be bought for NEW on any of 3 sites. Isn't that a little unclear on the concept?

I would really like more dialogue on this subject - it scares me to hear writers grumbling about their books being resold. I say, the more circulation the better. There will always be readers who can afford and want the new, and others who can't. I tell people to give my book away to other people after they read it! I consider it a compliment if they urge it on their friends.

Barbara Riddle

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your description of the Monterey Bay Book Festival. Sounds like level heads and honest minds prevailed. Must say I agree with all of them. Having been there and done that - there is not one solution to publishing - but thank goodness there are more options than there were five years ago.

My only quibble - when you look at what POD or E publisher to use - it matters little what other titles they stock (as to Loye's comment) because very few people happen upon self-published titles or search through websites on a whim looking for one to buy.

Authors who go this route have to get out there and hand sell their titles by using viral marketing and give readers the specific link to their own book on the sites where it is for sale.

This is key. If you say - my book is for sale at AB.com bookstore - your reader will get lost in the virtual stacks so to speak. I learned this the hard way. You have to link to and give the reader the exact url for your book's own "For Sale" page - whether that page is at the JustBooks website, Booklocker's website or Amazon's.

I should also say that I know Angela, owner of Booklocker - who Loye sort of recommends - in fact she's my co-author on a new book coming out in January called How To Publish and Promote Online. Cheesy titles or not - Angela is outselling every other E and POD publisher online. She's up to over $15,000 a month in sales and growing every month. What's more she is as honest as they come. And at least a dozen authors who she's helped published have gone on in one way or another to bigger and better careers by virtue of having put their books for sale at Booklocker.

Sounds like an ad for her - I'm sorry - I've just been very impressed with how she's built and now runs her business.

M.J. Rose


Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

"Holt Uncensored" is an online column by Pat Holt
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