HOLT UNCENSORED #83
by Pat Holt
Tuesday, August 10, 1999:
FOLLOWING THE MONEY - PART II
BOOK REVIEW: 'THE END OF THE CLASS WAR'
FOLLOWING THE MONEY - PART II
A number of readers have written to say how horrified they are to see one well-placed media story after another portraying Barnes & Noble head Len Riggio as a philanthropic Santa Claus giving huge contributions to literary causes.
A recent New York Magazine (July 19) does this in spades, adding that Riggio, just a fuzzy bunny with money for you and you and you if only you'd ask, feels "deeply wound(ed)" by accusations of "breaking antitrust laws, closing down thousands of independent bookstores, bullying publishers and flattening the literary landscape."
Riggio, as you might have guessed, would like to be considered "a man of high purpose, committed to art, literature, the best that has been thought and said." Worth about $700 million according to the magazine, he appears to thrill at the notion of being a combination Mr. Nice Guy/Godfather. "From the things [media critics] write about me, you would think I wake up in the morning thinking about who I am going to kill," he says. Instead, "I wake up looking to do some good!"
And the good is pretty hefty: Recently, Riggio contributed $1 million to build and stock a new library for the Children's Defense Fund (plus whatever it took to fly in Toni Morrison, Hillary Clinton, Rita Dove and Joyce Carol Oates for the dedication ceremony). He's pledged $1 million for his old high school, Brooklyn Tech; he's donated another $1 million to the Dia Center of the Arts.
At home, stories abound of Riggio's personal generosity and loyalty. He's employed family and friends he grew up with, helped San Francisco employees recover from the last big earthquake and (excuse me if I chuckle) been seen to "open his wallet and take out several hundred dollars to buy an aging office worker a set of false teeth." (One has to wonder how beneficial the B&N benefits package can be if it requires a donation from the chief executive to cover a set of false teeth.)
It's a familiar story: Poor kid from the old neighborhood turns ruthless on his way to the top and now wants to be seen as a warm and cuddly benefactor to all. But even this is only part of the tale. Len Riggio, after all, did not come all this way to look like a fatcat trying to buy off his guilt about ruining the lives of independent booksellers and throwing the book industry into chaos.
He came this far, it seems, so that he can be portrayed by newspapers and magazines as having so much money and so much power that he can afford the audacity to say to Toni Morrison (who apparently did not want to attend the dedication for the library to which he gave $1 million), "Are you so rich now that you don't care anymore?"
(Boy, that one grates. And of course New York magazine has to fall for this kind of self-aggrandizing power play by implying that "the promise of transportation onboard a Riggio-chartered jet" convinced Morrison to come. What an assumption! The Nobel Prize-winning author turns into Cosmo Girl so she can ride on a private plane! Not too hot, New York magazine.)
Perhaps what matters is not whether Len Riggio is a nice guy but whether WE in the book business can be nice guys about Riggio throwing this money around. Can we accept the idea that he and Barnes & Noble are bringing millions of much-needed dollars to good causes, even when we know on whose backs (independent booksellers) so much of those millions have been made?
You'd think Toni Morrison would have declined Riggio's invitation to appear at the library dedication, wouldn't you? After all, she has seen the book industry shrivel up through the sheer concentration of power that has made Riggio what he is today. If anybody knows that serious but unknown writers won't make it without independent booksellers to support them, Morrison does.
Only a few years ago, in her acceptance speech at the National Book Awards, Morrison warned the book industry to "make sure no encroachment of private wealth, government control or cultural expediency can interfere with what gets written or published. That no conglomerate or political wing uses its force to still inquiry or to reaffirm rule." The question is no longer when chain bookstores like Barnes & Noble started to use "cultural expediency" to "interfere with what gets published" but how much they now cut into the publishing process - and I'm talking about everything from editorial decisions to mountains of returns - for their own benefit.
Yet Toni Morrison decided to go to Riggio's dedication clearly not to celebrate Riggio or his chain store but to welcome a needed new library for the Children's Defense Fund. Of course, Riggio went to the dedication with other needs on his mind, as the magazine notes: "At the dedication, Riggio hobnobbed cheerfully with the assembled liberal activists, scholars, and writers, happy to be respected not only for his money and power but for his ideas."
Now what ideas would these be, perchance? One wonders if it was Riggio who told the magazine of "the group's plan to name the library after himself," which he nixed, "suggesting instead that it be dedicated to Langston Hughes." Such a modest man! By now, as a reader noted from this article a few columns ago, Riggio doesn't compare himself or what he represents to "Amazon.com or some other store," Rather, he wants to know, "How do I stack up against William O. Douglas, or Mahatma Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr. - these are the standards I aspire to."
Such disclosures might be sad to witness if it weren't for the way that Riggio's sharklike demeanor has turned him into bait for other interests. As fundraisers in the nonprofit community like to say, "Tainted money? T'ain't enough of it!" - which means that if you can put a huge donation to good use and for the betterment of society, who cares where it comes from?
Which brings us back to Borders' support of the poetry series described in #81. Given the way very good nonprofit literary programs have been crippled or abandoned entirely by government funding outfits such as the National Endowment for the Arts, perhaps we in the book biz can not only be glad to see chains attempting to resurrect their reputations by supporting such programs, we should EXPECT them to give more. If Riggio wants to be considered a world player on the philanthropist front, he's got to up the ante. If Borders wants to exploit its support of literary programs to bolster their appeal for conditional use funds at city council and planning commission meetings, they can pay through the corporate nose. Meanwhile we can be grateful to the conscientious mid-management people inside these awful corporate offices who work so hard to spring the money and support such programs.
What one hopes will finally seep into the press is that independent bookstores never play this game. They provide free services and contributions to good causes because they ARE members of the community, because it's good for business, because the store livens up when they do it, because literature really does provide answers to life and because art is often more meaningful when we all engage in it together.
The great irony here is that store events and community involvement have become so costly for independents that many booksellers have turned to Friends of the Store groups for support, or created a separate nonprofit service within the store, or joined with other organizations to establish new public venues, or drawn on philanthropic funds themselves, or charged customers for admission to keep these events going.
It would be greatly informative one day to show, too, that taken together, independent bookstores not only stock a wider variety of titles than do the chains, they also support their communities in far more diverse and meaningful ways than chains can ever do, AND they help create that crucial web of literary connections involving bookstores, schools and libraries that can make a real difference in every child's life.
In the end while we should EXPECT the chains to give higher sums and greater support to programs involving literacy, let's also expect the media, which has been wising up about "the bookstore wars" since the FTC decision stopped Barnes & Noble from acquiring Ingram, to report on not only those independent bookstores struggling to survive, but independent bookstores saving the day.
"THE END OF THE CLASS WAR"
And now the hardest book of all to review, market, publish or sell - the very very very very quiet short story collection that seems nice enough when you read the first story but eventually sears its way into your brain like pleasant literary acid.
Such is the case with Catherine Brady's "The End of the Class War" (Calyx; 239 pages; $13.95 paperback; you can order online at http://www.amazonfembks.com), an elegant first effort about working-class Irish Americans - most of them women, most of them poor - who find themselves quietly daring to change their place in life and society, without permission, for the first time.
Many of the stories are about the extended Daley family, whose sisters, parents, aunts and grandparents from the Old Country face their own demons in stories throughout the book. But in "Home Movies," no one is the protagonist. Instead, we see the sisters as five little girls growing up through the lens of the family movie camera that Joe, the hard-working father, trains on his subjects.
Now married, with husbands and children watching, too, the sisters laugh and comment as they see their own, very young bodies - clad in pajamas, fresh from baths - tumbling in awkward cartwheels, displaying their "lovely arched feet, firm rumps that could be cupped in two hands," on the lawn of the family backyard. Their mother, Maureen, sits to the side of the image, "her body an impossible origin for these lithe creatures."
It soon becomes apparent, however, that every now and then the most idyllic scenes have been choreographed by their heavy-handed father - as in winter, when "the little girls in their belling coats look like origami shapes, light enough to be blown across the blurry backdrop of snow."
In a long-familiar Christmas morning scene, where the sisters are arranged in a circle with their paltry presents, each one opening her gift, then holding it up to the camera, we sense that "maybe only their reflexive squinting against the lights betrays any worry. If they open a gift before Joe is ready with the camera, it will be confiscated. If they don't hold up the unwrapped present just so, if they don't smile, he'll reach out and slap them."
But just as the home movies "translate all movement into jerky, synaptic stuttering," so we see Joe in real life not as a tyrant or child abuser but as the accepted head of this Irish American family. He sternly doles out the family money to his wife, has the capacity to "bang his fist on the table, scattering the little girls," and comes home for dinner late on weekdays because he holds down two jobs. "Loading his fork with his knife, he bent to his dinner, not looking up from the plate until he had pushed it away from him, empty."
While Joe and other Irish American men in the collection appear to run families by fiat or get their way through charm and male privilege, they remain stuck in their jobs, biases and expectations. The women, though weighed down by back-breaking labor, little money and Old World superstitions ("everyone knows the last child in any big Irish Catholic family is born bad"), seem to flow like liquid through society's cracks, moving past boundaries of class and race.
Thus the waitress-turned-xray-technician - having married too young, given birth too soon and encountered the violence of her spendthrift husband too late - appears to us the most trapped woman in the collection during her story, "Wild, Wild Horses." At the mall where Jimmy makes a scene about money, she thinks of the six dollars that must last for the rest of the week while checking the shredded and worn clothes of her little girl, Lily.
What the hopelessness of poverty does to children has rarely been so beautifully expressed. "There's something dirty about the way Lily looks, from head to toe, that's more than the sum of her scuffed shoes, dribbling socks, hand-me-down dress, something dirty that has worked its way into the tight skin around her eyes, the lower lip on which she clamps her teeth whether she wants to cry or smile. Sometimes at night, after she's crawled into bed with us, I wake to feel her body shaking with a whimper that doesn't even escape her mouth as sound."
Women like this mother and Deanna, the pregnant teenager of "Chatter," see middle-class professional women - social workers, teachers, prosecutors - as part of the larger enemy, one that's going to separate them from their children and keep them impoverished. Deanna, a shoplifter proudly impregnated by LeVon, the African American boyfriend she believes will be waiting for her when she gets out of Juvenile Hall, is so sick of her upbeat teacher, Laura, she'd like to slap her. "That's what gets [Deanna] about Laura, about the other teachers here: their trouble is they've never been slapped."
But as in "Wild, Wild Horses," hope awaits in the most unexpected circumstances. For Deanna it's the "chatter" that comes back to her from her late grandmother, Gerry, the only person who ever cared about Deanna. Though people may think Deanna is "some kind of whore just because she's having a baby at her age (wait till they see what color he is), " Gerry believed in Deanna, let her help out around the ramshackle house, even let her hold the smallest chickens she was raising. Deanna remembers this when her daughter Kevaun is born and realizes that LeVon, hearing he didn't father a son, may lose interest and not show up.
"The chicks struggled in your hand," she remembers, "and you had to close your fingers and thumbs over them so they wouldn't fall to the floor. The slightest pressure would be enough to crush their toothpick bones, their pea-sized internal organs." And Gerry starts her wonderful "babbling" again. "When you were born, you know, hon, I was counting your fingers and toes, and oh my gosh, I found you had one finger missing a middle joint. . . And I'd tell you you had a special finger. Oh, I couldn't bear to have you think you weren't just perfect." And perfect is what Deanna realizes she and Kevaun have the chance to be.
The range of Brady's subject matter is astounding. In one story, Liz, "too heavy-hipped, too soft, too slow" to pass the physical for joining the police force, has become a toughened professional as a meter maid who "takes no excuses" when drivers come out of stores to find her writing tickets on their cars. Those who plead are the worst - "she feels embarrassed for people when ugliness spills from them, escapes their weak hold" - but those who curse or threaten her meet a wall of iron. Liz, having "developed a thick skin from the pummeling" her brothers gave her in childhood, views her position in the world much in the way she regards her mother's Irish cooking - "mashed potatoes, boiled cabbage, grey steak. Liz doesn't like to cook. All that effort to turn out boiled things that weep water onto the plate."
Only when her sense of justice nearly flattens her does Liz begin to find a way to remake her own world. Like the little boy in a children's book who could "draw a window and then climb through it, draw an apple tree and then reach up to pick the fruit," she finds it possible to leave the ironclad sense of order she's depended upon for so long and "make the world out of the moment's wishes."
In another, far more sophisticated story, Mari, a former waitress-turned-scholarship girl from Chicago, has married David, her Art Institute teacher, and is living with him in Tuscany as he works on his paintings. Feeling that David has "led her out of captivity" and fearing that he is having an affair, Mari finds it difficult to "hold still" during discussions with their artist friends about purity of form and soul.
A sexual pull of art and faith seeps into every niche Mari observes. She prefers to sit in a Florence church under a Ghirlandao fresco as the priest passes by, swinging his smoking censer, "so that she could walk out with the sonorous incense of Ghirlando clinging to her skin and hair and clothes, entering her through the narrow funnel of her nostrils."
The idea of changing the world through repair, as opposed to surrender (or as Irish Catholics put it, "submission"), is examined through layers of irony and complication as Theresa and Ian struggle to raise their 7-year-old son, Danny, whose legs are paralized from spina bifida, in "The Lives of the Saints."
"We'd been told the incidence of spina bifida births was higher among Irish women," Teresa tells us, so when she becomes pregnant again, Ian, a furniture maker who can fix anything, insists they order all the amnio tests. Teresa, not wanting "to know, to choose," but to be left alone with "the butterfly flutters of life in my belly," sees herself as a bad mother for Danny, whose physical and emotional needs are enormous: "I can't resist the impulse to jump in and fix things for him," she says.
Ian wants Teresa to leave her part-time tutoring job and go back to full-time work, but in one of the great throwaway lines that are everywhere in this book, Teresa hesitates. "What I do not want to give up is the sweet slowness of motherhood. The way you have to flow like water around interruptions, sudden crises, the storming force of a five-year-old's wants."
Even tutoring the violent bully Ricky, who has struck and hurt her in his frustration, Teresa wishes she could "pull him into my lap" and read to him, the two of them hearing the story "in the warmth of each other's body heat.
"I want to re-root his life in the pleasure my own children have had, pressing against me as I read to them, interrupting as Ricky does, to wonder or to be satisfied, to be fed by the sound of my voice, the soft pulse of my breath on their scalps, the fit of their smallness against the rolling slopes of myself."
Many of Catherine Brady's stories have the power to stop readers in mid-sentence, to capture her characters in the specifics of their universe yet free them to explore the fullness of their humanity. She is an astonishing writer, delicate and strong at the same time, her authority and insight as magnificent as her ability to recede and invite on every page.
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I've enjoyed Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta stories for years, and your take on the mythic status of the character was interesting and something I hadn't thought about before. I'll probably read the new one differently having read your views.
But if I were to choose a character for the role you ascribe to Scarpetta, it would most certainly be Carol O'Connell's Mallory (you don't use her first name if you value your manhood). Far and away the most fascinating female character in the mystery/crime field, and wonderfully plotted stories to boot. Maybe it's a "male thing," as my wife doesn't like the Mallory series nearly as much as I do.
Finally, whatever the reason the Scarpetta character hasn't made it to the big screen, it almost certainly has nothing to do with the strength of the character. Properly done, a movie would be a sure money-maker, and the Hollywood types respect that much more than anything. The stories have virtually everything necessary for a success. Cornwell's wish for control is a more likely culprit.
Books and Library Related Antiques
Dear Holt Uncensored,
I was interested in D. Kastin's letter speaking of Brown Bear Books' ad in the Chronicle that included a line about supporting independent bookstores. He stated that independent bookstores and independent publishers should work together. As an author who has published often with independent publishers I am only too aware of the struggle these small publishers have getting attention from independent booksellers.
Over the years I have worked closely with six independent publishers who would love to be able to sell only to small booksellers but they are largely ignored by their brethren. Even though they are often snubbed by them, small publishers work very hard to support the independents and would love to boycott the chains altogether. Problem is that independent bookstores (except for a rare few exceptions) feel they have to feature the books with the biggest budgets. If there were any way that the independents--publishers and sellers--could work more closely, it would be of great benefit to them both. But the efforts of small publishers to rally mutual support have too often fallen on deaf ears.
As for small publishers waving banners for independent booksellers, through lines in ads and even editorials in trade magazines and consumer magazines, they have been doing this for years. I, for one, have had at least a dozen such articles published in the past five or six years, but I know I am by no means alone on this.
Let's address this issue up front. It's a problem not just for independent publishers but for independent distributors as well. Sales reps at independent distributors have told me time and again that making calls to independent booksellers to try to sell them books from small publishers simply isn't worth their effort. There are only a few rare exceptions to this rule. As a result, the main thrust of independent distributors nationwide is presently in the camp of the chains, where as much as 80 percent of their total sales are made.
This problem is far more critical than you seem to believe.
Hal Zina Bennett
Dear Holt Uncensored:
I appreciate your column and I even act on some of your suggestions (e.g., subscribing to the California Poetry Series). I also bought, in hardcover, a novel you recommended - but I bought it from Borders.com. Why such schizophrenic behavior? Because - if I still lived in Berkeley, I would have hied myself to Black Oak to buy the book. If I lived in Minneapolis or St. Paul, I could have gone to - well, not Odegaard's any more, but Hungry Mind, anyway. But I live in St. Cloud, MN. My choices here are:
There is rumored to be an independent bookstore in this community of about 80,000 people. I've lived here over three years and still haven't found it. When I asked someone who knows the place, he said: "it looks like a gift shop." Need I say more?
In the best of all possible worlds we would have a flourishing independent bookstore in a convenient location in this town, and in every smallish American city. I work for an independent publisher, and we don't sell many books through the chains (though we do list with Amazon), because we are unwilling to give the kinds of deep discounts the chains demand. Obviously, we'd like to support an independent bookstore if we had one. (I leave aside the college bookstore, which remains the best local outlet for our kind of book.) But for general reading purposes, given the real-life choices, I can at least consider that when I go to the local B&N I am giving employment to local people and paying the fairly hefty state sales tax (some of which may eventually be rebated to me, thanks to the relatively enlightened government of Minnesota).
Naturally, we are delighted that B&N didn't get Ingram, and we would oppose any such moves in future. But trying to "starve them out" locally would just be starving ourselves for books.
Linda M. Maloney
Holt queries: I wonder why you haven't investigated buying books online from independent bookstores. Cody's, Book Passage, Kepler's are probably known to you since you've lived in California, and they all have good on-line service. Just curious.
Linda Maloney responds: I do buy from independents online sometimes - especially when I'm looking for used books. I have a couple of sites, such as ACSES, for comparison shopping.\r