March 31, 2010

Some thoughts on Ernest Gellner’s _Nations and Nationalism_

I like the book. My wife told me that I tore it up. Nationalism is something that has interested me recently, especially as I see it as a major stumbling-block in improving the course of mankind in the world. Nations and flags are something you hold onto instead of opening up your arms and hands to the idea of a better world. That said, I have read little in the subject, the most pertinent being Hobsbawm’s essays in the collection _The Invention of Tradition_. I am just opening up the hermeneutic circle in hopes of someday closing it.

I do have several critiques of the book, and many of them are answered or at least brought up in the introduction to this addition. The primary critique is that the book is overly generalized. To illustrate his concept of nationalism only arising after industrialization, Gellner uses a hypothetical country to make his point. While I understand he is trying to construct a general model of nationalism, his experiences and theories naturally have to be based off of real situations to be a working model. All nations and nationalistic movements will differ in specifics from the model he creates. Does this show the strength of his model, or its weaknesses.

A secondary critique is that the models he uses are entirely too Eurocentric. The book could be titled _European Nations and Nationalism_ quite easily. The post-colonial struggles for a definition of nationalistic identity all over the formerly colonized worlds are give short shrift, and I think this is because they do not fit as easily into the model he argues for in this book. The idea that the European culture imposed on the developing world is too strong to be subverted by one of the native folk cultures seems to me rather patronizing in a cultural aspect. That many of the colonial borders still exists should be reason to reexamine the model, not look for reasons why the cultures do not fit the model working in it.

A final, more personal critique is Gellner’s dismissal of the Marxist view of history. While the Marxist view can be open to some of the critiques I have against Gellner, I feel that the burden lies to Gellner to show more particularly how his model is superior to one that has been studied and refined through academic discourse over the past century and a half. I recognize that this book is long in print, so I am sure some Marxist historian has taken up Gellner and his glib dismissal of the Marxist system. I respect the cultural model drawn by Gellner, but I doubt the prevalence of the influence on a large scale of the socio-linguistic system he uses as the center of his theory. To me, class still seems like a larger division, even if Gellner disagrees. I still find this work interesting and illuminating, so I will not dismiss it despite my critiques. I have to read more on the subject

March 26, 2010

On The Wal-Mart Effect by Charles Fishman

This is a very good, even-handed analysis of the the WalMart effect on the economy from the local consumer to the globalized manufacturing of the products we consume ever day. It was well-written and easy to read.

My main complaint is that the writer at times speaks of some of what we might call the company's evils in a most dispassionate manner. At the time of reading, this feels like he is implicitly condones the actions of the companies and its suppliers (even though its clear the suppliers have little option in going along with WalMart).

Overall, I think the objectivity of the author plays a key part on the effectiveness of the book. His bias is in the pages, but they do not yell too loud. Anyone looking int the effect of late twentieth century capitalism on America would be well served to read this book.

March 24, 2010

I Love Unemployment!

Having been unemployed for a long time now, I and my family are at the mercy of the continual incremental increases in the unemployment. I am grateful, but as time goes on and hiring has lagged the rebound in the stock market by a year, I become contimually more pessissmistic about employment in the short-term. I think the media plays a part in this. Now the news in my area trumps when there are job openings in low wage areas. A while back there was big news that Home Depot would be ramping up with several part-time openings. This is how you make discouraged workers ever more hopeless.

The vast underclass of surplus labor just has to watch in horror, hoping the government's largess doesn't end, because there are many in my boat. There are even more that have fallen through the cracks. They never were eligible for the benefits because they're inconvenient for capital to fund. I'm just waiting for my own benefits to stop. They never were big, as they represent more than a 50% cut in my former wage. However, with austerity measures in my household, we have been able to adjust to a new normal.

This new normal is not the American dream that I was sold in school and college. Many who bought into it and did well in school and studied hard are in trouble, and disenchanted with the system. These people have radicalized on both the right and the left. Our system has been built on consumption, and we hope to return to consumption, but that's not a long-term plan of any stability. Right now the market is failing many of my peers, as well as myself.

What's needed right now is a return to new deal or great society ideals. I'm losing job skills and future potential earnings by the day as I sit idle. I don't want to be idle. My background is not in any sort of heavy labor, but I would gladly dig ditches in a make-work program if that gave me the needed sense of accomplishment and creation. The main caveat is that a potential resurrection of the WPA must be new work in infrastructure or building for the common good. It must not replace work already being done or planned, the so-called 'shovel ready' projects. Right now the government is paying for my labor and getting nothing from it.

I know this would increase the cost, as the training and material costs would increase, but this would bring back a sense of self to many workers who lose who they are in a society that creates identity in your occupation. When asked to describe yourself or others, occupation tops many lists of identifiers. In our country right now, too many people are nothing.

March 22, 2010

Actual Remarks: March 20, 2010 Democratic Party Subcommitee

Ladies and gentlemen of the Democratic Party, I stand here to plead my case for your consideration of my candidacy as Lieutenant Governor. If you choose me as Governor Quinn’s running mate, I will serve the high office only in the worst cases. No one here wants these contingencies to come to pass. Therefore I speak today as both a potential Governor and the his potential Lieutenant.

My name is John Edgar Mihelic. Nobody knows me, or my name. My father is not the chair of this party, head of the county board, or a powerful Alderman. I stand here today because like my father I feel a calling to service. I have previously answered this calling by teaching; now I am volunteering my service to the state. I would not be here if I didn’t think my involvement could not improve the state or the conditions of its people.

I am here because I believe the people deserve better than the status quo that has perpetuated itself so wonderfully in Springfield. Hard choices have to be made in the realms of revenue creation and spending. I largely support my potential running mate’s proposals. Most importantly, however, we have to be open and honest about our priorities. The monies generated through taxation and borrowing might fall short. The state government calls out for streamlining.

Because of this, we cannot continue to allow money to disappear at every level of bureaucracy. Every wasted dollar has a motivated advocate to continue the programs they benefit from. But every dollar lost represents a dollar not spent on important infrastructure; dollars not invested in education. Expectations in these areas should start high and continue to grow. Finally, we need to keep our commitments to public workers. For too long we have borrowed against their futures and now many want to point fingers at those who have dedicated a career to the betterment of the state. Unions and pensions are not the problem in Illinois; the problem is politicians seeing higher office as a source for private gain and not public service. Ultimately we have to run Illinois for the people of Illinois and be unafraid to make the hard choices to solve these hard problems.

I do not have the answers to all these complex situations. What I have is the knowledge, the determination and the vision that working together we can move from this atmosphere of fear and mutual suspicion to a shared prosperity. Too many before have allowed petty ambitions for material gains to cloud the reputation of this state’s government. I allow that I am ambitious. My ambition is the greater glory of the state – beginning now. I may succeed greatly or fail spectacularly. Either way I will wake up tomorrow knowing how to move forward better by the lessons I learn today.

March 18, 2010

In consideration of my candidacy as Lieutenant Governor

Ladies and gentlemen of the Democratic Party, I stand here to plead my case for your consideration of my candidacy as Lieutenant Governor. If you choose me as Governor Quinn’s running mate, my primary purpose will be to wait for something bad to happen to the Governor. I do not want that, nor does anyone here. I speak today as both a potential Governor and the current Governor’s potential Lieutenant.

My name is John Edgar Mihelic. M-I-H-E-L-I-C. It’s a funny name, but those are easily learned in this state. Nobody knows me, or my name. My father is not the chair of this party, head of the county board, or a powerful Alderman. My father is an Emergency Room Doctor. He stands on his feet for long hours. His work is saving lives. He doesn’t always succeed, but his stoic reserve in the face of his own failures is something I respect and emulate.

I stand here today because like my father I have a calling to service. Many have felt this before and answered it in many ways. I have answered this calling by teaching; now I am volunteering my service to the state. I would not be here if I didn’t think my involvement could not alter for the better the conditions of the state and the people in it. I believe in Illinois.

The people deserve better than the status quo perpetuating itself so grandly in Springfield. Hard choices have to be made in the realms of revenue creation and spending. I largely support my potential running mate’s program, but we have to be open to all voices. Most importantly, we have to be open and honest about our priorities. The monies generated through taxation and borrowing might fall short of all the promises we have made. What we cannot allow is for money to disappear at every level of bureaucracy. Every dollar lost represents a dollar not spent on important infrastructure and dollars needed to invest education are lost. We should not lower the bar to meet diluted expectations, we need to raise expectations from everyone. Finally, we need to keep our commitments to public workers. For too long we have borrowed against their futures and now many want to point fingers at those who have dedicated a career to the betterment of the state.

I do not have the answers to all these complex questions. What I have is the mind, the determination, and the vision that working together we can move from this atmosphere of fear and uncertainty and mutual suspicion to a shared prosperity. Too many before me have allowed petty ambitions for material gains to cloud the reputation of the state’s government. I allow that I am ambitious. My ambition is the greater glory of the state – beginning now. I may succeed greatly or fail spectacularly. Either way I will wake up tomorrow knowing how to move forward better by the lessons I learn today.

Thank you for your kind consideration

March 16, 2010

Why I Hate Neal Stephenson

I have been reading “The Diamond Age”, a book by Neal Stephenson over the last couple of weeks. I picked it up to supplement some of the other books I was reading, to make the nonfiction rest in my head while I percolated on those thoughts and ideas while I busied my ample readings with something fictional. This is not to say that fictional renderings of stories and events are less taxing than Smith’s “Wealth of Nations,” or Engels’s “Condition of the Working Class in England.” The intellectual challenge and difference is something that gives balance to the reading; I consider this in line with all the periodicals I read in addition to books. I really was looking forward to reading this book, even if it has been sitting on my ‘to-read’ shelf since September. I picked it up, started the first thirty pages, and put it down in favor of a style manifesto first written in the seventies. I have eclectic reading habits, but I finished the style manifesto long ago when I just last night finished “The Diamond Age”.
I put down “The Diamond Age” initially for a reason I will discuss later, but right now, I want to gloss over the answer to the title of this piece. I hate Neal Stephenson. Now do not get me wrong, there are many authors I do not like. This dislike comes from my own judgment of the value of a writer’s works in comparison to their reputation. A metric such as this lends to highly subjective valuations, so I will not apply it to anything where there were rules and standards and consensus. Modernism and earlier are free from my dislike, those works just have to suffer the wrath of my indifference. My own post-modern evaluation can be applied to two writers whose works do not, in my opinion, match their own reputation. Many may disagree with me, but Don DeLillo falls here. I know I am supposed to like his works. He has mastered the world of critical success in the last 25 years, even while some of his contemporaries I enjoyed more such as Jay McInerney and Bret Easton Ellis fell by the wayside. I gave DeLillo a fair chance. I have read three of his books on my own, after being assigned “The Body Artist” in college. The best recommendation of “The Body Artist” is that it is short. Like “Cosmopolis,” short and when I closed the back cover for the last time my biggest response was a shrug as I chased what the next title I should pull off my shelf. As a writer, this is not the response I want from my work. I doubt that DeLillo would think that this is the effect he has. My own let down was based on the reputation primarily of two of his books.
My own understanding of “White Noise” and “Underworld is as follows: These books will grab you by the hand at the party. After much searching through the vast uninhabited areas at the party, a quite, secluded place will be found. You will be thrown down onto a pile of stranger’s coats that scratch you on your back while your mouth is preoccupied with the hunger devouring you at the front. Your chest is scratched and your groin begins to heat like a radiator and the blood pools and you feel your pulse between your legs and it is getting faster. You find your belt being undone; it is your hand but you do not remember giving the signal from you head to your hand. A warm shiver of electric shock overwhelms you as a strange moisture envelopes your cock from the glans to the base and back again. You blackout in pleasure while your disembodied spirit hovers overhead watching waves of ecstasy wash over your face. You awake later with an alien mixture of shame and pride as you look around an empty house. I have had books do this to me. It’s always a pleasant surprise, and you go searching for that feeling over and over again and perhaps you fill that void and perhaps you will not but that tremble of ecstasy will always be different somehow, no matter who or what you find to fill the void. The problem is when your somewhat expecting this but only have marginal expectations for it happening. You nurse your beer in a corner and wait, chatting up those near you. I will tell you what happened for me. “White Noise” was at the party and told me some story about a barn. “Underworld” started out with the secluded place and the hungering of the mouth and then turned away and left. I found a quiet corner in an unfinished basement lit by a single under- powered bare bulb and had a silent wank and went home alone. I do not grudge the silent wank by any means, but when you are expecting to be washed away to nothingness by a wave of pure pleasure, the wank is a letdown. Other authors have put me in similar situations as DeLillo. I am aware that this is a tortured metaphor for an emotional and not a strictly analytical way to look at literature, but at this point in my career, I am reading fict-tation more for a physical, emotional reaction than for a philosophy or a reasoning of the world. Right now, I feel we have to encounter the world with the most concrete philosophy our abstract brains can muster. I want to be able to escape the world through literature. When all you give me is a silent wank, I will take it but I am too soon out in the world. I am not going to like you, but after a couple of these letdowns, I am not going to pursue you again, or if I do, my expectations will be muted. Even if you be a man of Infinite Jest, my later interviews may be brief for a reason.
A difference exists, to carry forward, between expecting fellatio and wanting fellatio. I think this is at the center of my hatred for Neal Stephenson. I hate his work because I am ready to give him all the love he needs and could want from no other, but I do not receive the love I want back from his works. I have had this in real life. I still harbor conflicted feelings for certain pixyish brunettes that I wanted to love. Wanted to, but not even a quite little wank in the corner. Just the covers draw you in, and the blurbs excite you about what is possible in a post-cyberpunk world of science fiction. How do we look at technology interacting with the world and how does that effect people and the stories we tell ourselves? How do you create a paradigm of the future based on the earth and not be overly dreamy about the stars in the sky? Can you improve on what it means to be a stranger in a strange land? I have read two books of Stevenson’s and I have found that for me the main concern is that he cannot and I am sitting here thinking of ways to resurrect Vonnegut. Not that some of the coming critiques could not apply to my second-favorite Hoosier, but Kurt made you smile. Neal is like the vapid girl at the party who is really hot and draws a lot of attention, but when you start to talk to her there is very little to recommend.
Enough of this metaphorical preface: I want to like Neal Stephenson because he is smart. There are too few smart people in this world. I do not want to be condescending, but you have only to look at the Gaussian distribution to realize that roughly half of all people are below average. You can go many places with this information, and the people who really embraced this fact were somewhat embarrassed that the Nazi’s took the ball and ran with it. Somewhere along the line, being of the elite became a bad thing. The people making up the vast center heap between 85-115 can look downhill to the left and fell pride and contempt towards those who take up resources because of their very position at their end. Those same people can look right and feel pride and contempt towards the right hand side of the distribution because of, I do not know what. I want to say jealousy but that is arrogant and condescending. I feel envy towards those to the right of me, but from where I look, the slope is flattening out. I was humbled a while back when a good friend reminded me that even in America if you’re in the top one half of one percent of all Americans there are one and a half million people at least as smart as you are. Humbling, but I think that is keeping pretty good company. Stephenson is obviously in this company. He likes and through the evidence of his texts is conversant in so many different academic subjects. Off the top of my head, I can talk about his visionary look at nanotechnology, the nature of the internet, computer programming, linguistics, eastern religion, the devolution of nationalism, the sociology of people gathering in groups, and other things that are not popping in my head without buzzing the texts for evidence. I want to like him because he is of the tribe.
I also want to like him because he can write action. I could not tell you what happened at the end of “Snow Crash,” and that fact may be a critique for my own reading skills or of Stephenson’s narrative technique. He was able to bring me into the world he created and make me want to know what happened next. I remember doing this, but not the exact words or situations presented. I have to give credit to a writer who is able to disappear into his (or her, but let us be honest, his) action. Many of the writers across genres that I read have some sort of trouble doing this. I do not read many of the mass-market writers who are successful, so I might be misplaced in my praise. I do not know of Patterson’s or Dan Brown’s skills in this area, but I’m thinking of some of the praised science fiction I’ve read and Stephenson’s action rushes over you like a wave and his peers are somewhat clunky. “Enders Game” or even “Neuromancer” drags in comparison to Stephenson. There are points in Gibson especially I can remember stopping and asking, “What?” I have told my students in writing classes that you should look at the paper again when you have trouble reading what you are writing. On some level for the whole novel I was awaiting for him to start pulling things together. Stephenson starts his action majesty in “Diamond Age,” but pulls back. I did not want him to.
With ten percent of the “Diamond Age” book left to read, my wife asked me how the book was, and marveled that despite my earlier complaints I was still reading the book. I was trying to think of a way to describe the work. I told her that I still was not sure of what the conflict was. I finished it recently, and I am still not sure. I do not want to get into too many specifics, but I think it centered on the identity of a character called “The Alchemist”. Overall, this book, as well as the previous book I read by Neal Stephenson, is a letdown from my admittedly high expectations. I think the center of my disappointment is that Neal Stephenson obviously has never had a conversation with a living human being. I have my suspicions that what we know as the output of Neal Stephenson is in fact a highly advanced software program that is given a concept and allowed to spin out a world based on the concept. I would create a clever anagram here for what his name actually stood for here but I do not have the intellectual energy. I spoke earlier of picking the book up and then soon laying it down for a reason. Many of the conversations between people are stilted. This I can understand. Reading in genre, even when you have high expectations, has some problems. It happens. Nevertheless, when you offload almost all your world building and exposition in the dialogue, it is difficult to read for anyone that has had ample reading experience outside of the genre. A writer does need to explain the world he is building to the audience. The more your world is like the contemporary world of your imagined readers, the less of a burden you have to explain to readers. In “Snow Crash,” as I remember, a complex reasoning had to be devised to show that language itself was a possible carrier for a computer-like virus that could infect and destroy the brain. This concept is developed in-depth in dialogue between two characters and I was reading it asking why the hell people would be having this conversation. I hate to call too much attention to info-dumping, but I recently read a collection of J. G. Ballard’s short fiction. In these little pieces he was able to create worlds at least as detailed as Stephenson does in his much larger books, and Ballard does it in a much more subtle manner. When I started reading “The Diamond Age,” and Stephenson introduces two characters who obviously will be important later in the novel and on their first meeting they are discussing what seem to be personal matters and deeply discussing philosophic standpoints, I wanted to close the book and beat it across the table yelling in syncopated rhythm “People do not talk like this! This is obviously character development! What the fuck happened to subtlety?” I did not do this. I just put the book down. Then I picked up a style manual to make sure I was not crazy. I am not convinced that he is human, but I still hate Neal Stephenson.
I hate Neal Stephenson because his work is too technologically driven. And too action driven. Now, the second of the two may be a complaint on many kinds of fiction, and even some history that I have read. There is too much focus on the things happening. I understand that this is just a preference of my own in regards to the stories I like to tell myself. I remember being a kid and flying around fake airplanes driving my micro machines on the back of the couch and up and over and around doorjambs and other pieces of the world I encountered on a daily level. It was much like the world I encounter now, but everything was taller. These actions were able to suffice for a while, but then I would have to people my stories with actual people. You see, reliance on the technology was a small material concern for a child, but a mature person has to grow and look for agency of some sort. Things are cool, but to drive a narrative you need characters that have needs and desires and make decisions. Even Pixar knows this; the cars in “Cars” are actually people. On the other hand, they are cars with a creepy anthropomorphizing done upon them. Either way you look at it, you have to see that the cars may be what draw your audience, but you have to realize there is a very human need for a story arc. We humans will place a narrative on anything, so it is less of a burden to the author to create that narrative for the reader. A caveat is that there have been some success at experimental pieces that might place the entire burden on the audience, but those authors are not populating the bestseller list. For example, here in the “Diamond Age,” the subtitle is “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.” The characters are superfluous as the focus is this magical book. Magical books are cool, but as plot devices. The Rowling book where a diary plays a big part is not called “Tom Riddle’s Diary.” It is called “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” I think that is the one at least. Books, here in the story and in real life are mediators of the story and not the story itself. I want to know about the characters that are interacting through the book: A precocious child; a top-flight engineer; an actress; a Confucian judge; a mad-scientist sort. They are all mapped out here on paper, but they do not jump out, because they lack inner conflict or outer conflict. They do not interact as people because the program we know as Neal Stephenson need some better programming, and he has no sense of narrative that people live.
For me, the best of the science fiction is that the characters could be living their conflicts in any time or place; the setting in these best cases is secondary in that it heightens the drama of the story. I could write a fairly analogous story to “The Diamond Age,” with a magical book but maybe a wise race of elves to replace the futuristic elements. The story is the limited sense of wonder you have being immersed in the admittedly imaginative world Stephenson creates. This is not enough, however. If you put a book like Slaughterhouse-Five next to “The Diamond Age,” you might see what I am talking about. The story Vonnegut writes works as a straight story. He has written the version straight. However, using genre features of the Science fiction realm allow Vonnegut to explore the story of his own wartime involvement in a much more poignant way. Here the genre improves the story, and we want to know about the life of Billy Pilgrim. It is memorable; just thinking about the book makes me want to revisit it again. The characters in Stephenson’s books do not make me want to spend time with them again. They move on their little lives with no real conflict that fits easily into a narrative structure, and then the book ends. This may be more naturalistic, but it does not make a compelling story.
I think, and hold out hope, that Stephenson can write a compelling story. He is a smart guy writing in a genre that I have long had positive emotions towards. He is fairly prolific and has written beyond the books I have critiqued here. These are his second and third novel as an independent writer. Perhaps I am being too harsh on him. I still want to like Neal Stephenson, but I have only given him two chances. Perhaps a third is in order. Has anyone read the books of his Baroque Cycle?

March 12, 2010

On The Conditions of the Working Class in England, by Friedrich Engels

The condition of the working class in England is bad. Not the book,this book is compelling and sad. The actual material conditions the workers of England must live and toil in are enough to dehumanize the most hardy soul. Reading the work, I am reminded about the irrational hatred and even the opinions of the socially aware are against them. Anti-Irish sentiment runs from Edmund Spenser to Friedrich Engels. That is not the main issue but one that kept popping into my head.

The main issue is that the material conditions of the workers is bad. Engels paints vividly why the revolution will come to England as soon as 1846 or 1847. Man cannot live as slave, no matter what you call the master. Most striking is that as I was reading, I could easily call forth a sense of righteous indignation against the crimes of the bourgeois. These were not against the bourgeois of Engels's observed industrial England, but of the employing class of today's America. On many of the crimes he speaks of, it is still too easy to find analogues in contemporary society. I have suffered the same as the poor souls in a different time and place. I have lived the benefits of reform, but I still toil in the same system

March 9, 2010

On A Clergyman's Daughter, by George Orwell

An intriguing meditation on the nature of faith and poverty, with a side dish of Orwell's laser-focused truth on what it means to be a teacher. However, stylistically, you can tell that this is one book from the early part of Orwell's career. It is a little more 'experimental' in a modernist mode, without the narrative necessity for the experimental moves. Overall, I would recommend the book, but only after having read other books by the same author.

On Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century, by Michael A. Lebowitz

The title of this thin book is misleading. Only truly in the last chapter, which was written solely for this volume, does the author come anywhere close to discussing what a 21st century socialism would look like. And when he gets around to it, the blueprint is entirely involved with the formation of the Chavez-lead state in Venezuela.

While the left can and will take away many valuable lessons from the struggle in Venezuela, I am curious on looking for theory driving an idea behind revolution of the post-industrial service economy like the one we suffer under in the United States. Venezuela's economy was more agrarian and resource driven than the one in which we live under. While it is interesting in seeing the transition and the flux encountered by that nation, I feel that the revolution of our brothers in South American can at any time fall apart. Chavez risks becoming another Castro instead of the impetus for the creation of a democratic, socialist state.

Where my own expectation were not met may be the the failings of my own expectations. The book , however, lacks in its structure. There is no coherent whole bringing it together except for the common author and the individual chapters reflecting on the author's talking points. The six individual chapters stand alone because they were written as speeches, papers or book chapters for other sources. Putting these together with an introduction and conclusion does not a book make. There are several instances in which the essays were not edited for internal consistency. This strikes one reader as pure laziness, but I don't know at whom to point the finger. One final critique is that Lebowitz's writing style can be detached and professorial. Even though I'm sympathetic to the cause described here, and I do want to "Build It Now!", I found this book hard to get through, in spite of its brevity.

On Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, by Bertrand Russell

I like Russell because he frames his morality structure from a null point. His work, especially on religion as is the focus here, is incredibly even-handed. If you compare this work to one of the more modern 'evangelical atheists' such as Dawkins, Harris, or Hitchens, what you will see is that Russell is not as antagonistic towards the received dogma that he is writing against. I don't know if this is a structure of the intellectual environment that he wrote in, or just part of Russell's own temperament and style. However, I feel that his dissent was somehow "braver" than the more modern contrarian freethinkers because of that same intellectual environment. Russell's writing is clear and considered and thoughtful. Even if you don't agree with his positions, he writes as the most reasonable person in the room. If you are an atheist or a doubter, I would recommend this book. If you are religious, I would recommend this book even more strongly. If you don't know the counter-arguments, your faith is not as like the little children, it is childish.

On Bleeding London , by Geoff Nicholson

I really liked this book. It is a shame that it is out of print and that I had never heard of the author before. Now I have to check out the further writings of the man. This is a love letter to the city of London, from several points of view. I normally don't like the books and movies that shift between several people, as one story usually is stronger than the others. (See my intense dislike of _Infinite Jest_ in spite of liking Foster Wallace's nonfiction.) However, here the main character is the city, not its inhabitants. The characters are just transients on the surface of the dynamic city. Nicholson has a character say it better than I just did, but when I wanted to make a not to myself about the central theme of the work, I had no pencil close. It was worth while, but remember my views are idiosyncratic and subjective. Read it and we might have something to to talk about.

Like On Shaking Hands With God: A Conversation About Writing, with Kurt Vonnegut

_Like Shaking Hands With God_ is not worth the money of you have read the other works by Vonnegut he wrote since 1980 that spells out his personal philosophy on life, the universe and everything. However, I stand by my assertion that if someone were to publish Vonnegut's collected grocery lists, I would buy that book.

This book, comes close. It is short and spare and lacking in depth -- 80 pages of widely spaced larger type font. I am now vaguely interested in the writings of Lee Stringer now, but not enough that I plan on following up on finding more
about his work.

On Coming Up for Air, by George Orwell

A minor miracle in places. In others, Orwell's narrator is amazingly prescient on economic facts and class status for a contemporary reader. However, the book is uneven and some of the protagonist's/narrators actions are unbelievable. Overall, this book is uneven, but even Orwell's unevenness is quality enough to read.

On Making of the English Working Class, by E.P. Thompson

A pretty narrow subject with a very exhaustive take on the rising of class consciousness in England between the years 1790 and 1832. Engrossing at times, but also somewhat hard to read. First because it is an academic history from 40 years ago, but mainly because it is so dense and big. This is one of the books that I would want for a Kindle if I was not so anti-Kindle. It hurts the wrist, and as someone who takes a book everywhere I go, it is too big to be portable. This 'small' fact lead to me taking about six months reading the work. I liked it, with qualifications.

On Our Front Pages: 21 Years of Greatness, Virtue, and Moral Rectitude from America's Finest News Source

While I enjoyed the book, I liked both _Our Dumb Century_ and the satirical atlas better. I think the main reason being that the Onion's writers seem to do better with some context. The immediacy of topical humor is good, but some of the articles lack punch after the fact. Also, This collection does not allow you to read more of the stories that might be intriguing to you. If the headline is not a punch in the gut, there is a lack of a narrative to build your story because it is only front pages. I would recommend it as a coffee-table book and a way to pass an idle Sunday afternoon.

On Despair, by Vladimir Nabokov

What happens when Nabokov writes a murder mystery with no mystery? _Despair_. Not bad, but a Nabokovian take on a conventional tale. He often writes repugnant protagonists, but he makes them compelling and sympathetic. This is not the case here, in my reading. Hermann someone I wouldn't want to spend time with in a room, so even the 212 pages of text were a little much. There is little in the way of plot or characters to recommend the book, but stylistically Nabokov hits his stride and makes the novel compelling just for his language.

However, a caveat based on my emotional response. Nabokov's writing feels often as if it was written with a sneer. This is hard to quantify but an feeling that comes across to this long-time reader. This sneer is written on his face and embedded in his prose. I'm not sure if this is a sneer of arrogance or contempt; maybe it represents both. I'm also not sure if the contempt is for his readers, his critics, or himself.

On CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, by George Saunders

Bad, but shows promise. The cover copy blubs tried to sell the book as a cross between Nathanael West and Kurt Vonnegut. This blurb lies. Like I said, the book show promise. The scenarios the author dreams up to place his characters in are interesting. What doesn't work is how the characters act and interact. Also, while interesting, some of the scenarios are also unrealistic. In both 'The 400 pound CEO" and "Bounty," we are expected to think that the actions could be happening now. However, the characters actions and inner thoughts belie a naivety of how humans think and interact.

Saunders comes across as an intelligent but tin-eared writer who, I hope has developed from his tendencies. Another drawback is that he relies on dialogue for a good amount of exposition. This is tiring for the reader. I am frankly surprised at all the accolades he has gathered. If he has earned them, I am worried about the state of the short story in this country. These works come across as the output of a high level student writer, like my friend Andy Bolt.

If Saunders wants to get away from naturalistic writing, I understand. I also understand the urge to compare him to Vonnegut. In many of Vonnegut's works we see the same approach to writing as in this work by Saunders. Take reality and alter it a bit. This allows the writer to throw a light on something that he wants to expose or explore. Vonnegut does not get enough credit for the elegance and beauty of his prose because it is so simple and easy to digest. In my opinion, Saunders in this analogy is roughage that passes right through.

On The Original of Laura, by Vladimir Nabokov

I have a whole shelf of Nabokov books in my home. I fell in love with the man's writings after reading the author's introduction to _Pale Fire_. I have thrilled over lines in his books and his short stories, lamented that he isn't studied in the academy as often as he should, and lent out his works.

But this most recent book, which I preordered and waited for with bated breath was not up to the standards of his most mediocre work. The production of the text is interesting to see as an academic curiosity, but I vastly overpaid for that privilege. There's about 30 pages of text here if it were broken down and no story. What happened was the seeds of a story were taken and turned into a middling post-modern novel. I respect what his literary executors were trying to do for fans and scholars, but I feel that Vladamir's wishes were honored on this occasion.

I have to say though that I am generally not against the publication of posthumous fiction. I have thrilled lately at the remnants of Kurt Vonnegut's life works. I have enjoyed _A Happy Death_, a novel found amongst the wreckage of Camus's life. I also puzzled over a collection of uncompleted speeches by Calvino. But what those texts had was completeness. _The Original of Laura_ lacks this completeness. However, as a fan of the man's works, I do still feel fortunate to have this last contact.

On A Short History of Progress, by Ronald Wright

In this book, the author takes a look at the downfall of civilizations. Yes, that's plural. There are several models of how civilization is progressing. One is that we're getting better and better as time goes by. Another, less popular one states that we are actually in decline, going down from some sort of golden age. You'll find many of these proponents in the old age homes and such. For them, the only disagreement is when we are declining from.

In this book we look at the cyclical nature of the rise and fall of civilizations, taking examples from several once- prospering civilizations. This book stands as a call to action that something must be done to grow smartly and be careful on how we allocate the scant resources we have left. While he doesn't hit an anything new, this book's strength is its concise nature. The several examples are familiar and in that have more impact. The strongest example is one he visits several times to show an analogy of current times: Easter Island. This isolated speck in the Pacific was once a thriving mini-civilization with culture and art. And a lot of trees. These trees helped the islanders fish and raise their ceremonial head sculptures. However, these trees also were a poorly cultivated resource. Someone not too long ago cut down the last tree, and the island is now a wasteland and anthropological curiosity. We are doing the same thing. How many trees do we have left to cut?

On Einstein's Dreams, by Alan Lightman

A soft beauty & lightness of touch. Works; is good, but done before. Does for time what Calvino does for cities. But lyrics often fail as novels. Only momentum is pages in the hand. Know what you are, before you sell yourself.

On The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick

I hate when a writer has some good ideas that sound like they'll be interesting and though-provoking, but then falls flat because they lack complicated characters or sufficient plotting and narrative drive. This disappoints me. I hope that this is not pervasive, as this is the first Dick book I've read. I would hate to toss a talented renowned author aside because one book displeased me. That might happen, however. So it goes.

On Armadillo: A Novel, by William Boyd

How does one make it into the canon? I've been thinking about this recently. It was set at some point and now there must be a petition to get your works in, like some sort of penitent in Kafka's Castle. I think there is some sort of bias teachers and professors carry over into their own teaching. While some are open to letting in new works, it helps if you represent some sort of politics of difference. I hate to rail against inclusion, but if it is inclusion at the exclusion of others, it doesn't make sense.

Case in point: I've been assigned _Things Fall Apart _ twice for classes. The only other book that I have been assigned more than once is _A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man_. I like Joyce. The other book just isn't that good. As a historical document it is interesting, but as a novel, not so much.

My favorite writers are almost all excluded from the canon, or at least in 6 years of literature study they were not taught or were touched on only ephemerally in classes. These writers include: Calvino, G. Greene, Orwell, Dostoevsky, Camus, Nabokov, and Vonnegut. For whatever reason; subject matter, gender, lack of writing in English originally, working through and creating books after the second world war, they were ignore in my schooling. I avoided being forced to read 1984 in high school. I picked it up off an ex-girlfriend and it became one of my favorite books, that I have read and re-read over time.

And this is a discipline where you can get a doctorate writing about comic books. I have no problem with comic books. I also have no problem with studying foundational texts. It important to give everyone a common ground to start a cultural conversation from. I know the plays of Shakespeare, or at least I have his complete works on a shelf. Most 'educated' people have some reference point from his plays. You know: Hamlet was indecisive; Jews are evil; Black guys fall in love with statues; and so on. Who cares if most of his material existed somewhere else? Whole scenes are lifted in what would be called today plagiarism if he didn't obtain the rights. Cross reference Richard III with Bacon's prose history of the same man.

Somehow though, this has lead into contemporary works. The latest author I had the chance to study was Delillo. The cutoff point for male authors must be around 1990. I had to 'discover' David Foster Wallace on my own. The sad thing is that you get a much richer, fuller experience if you read a book communally. For me, having to prepare for a class as your reading a text makes me engage with it much more fully and on a deeper level. I've missed that with much contemporary anglophone fiction.

I only bought the book because of a blurb about it in the back of another book. I though the plot sounded interesting, so I bought it on a whim. I'm glad I did, for I found another writer I need to read everything written by the writer in a short span of time. This is also what I'm doing with two other contemporary British novelist. They've been publishing for twenty or so years, and somehow I failed to ever hear about these Booker-Prize nominated writers. And they're good storytellers, not like Coteze where he's a shit storyteller but can write elegant and beautiful sentences. These three writers are Julian Barnes, William Boyd, and Martin Amis. All three clever elegant writers addressing issues that are relevant today. If I think hard, I can remember one reference to Barnes's _Flaubert's Parrot_ by a creative writing professor. Thank you Gail Galloway Adams. I'm just going to say it. They're screwed because they're all three white males.

The book concerns one Lorimer Black and a very bad couple of weeks he has. Buy it, its good.

On Sexuality and Socialism, by Sherry Wolf

Too much of a survey for me, I was looking for and hoping for a little more depth and less of a synthesis of things about history and theory I already know. The last two chapters reached for a prescription for depth, but did not necessarily get there. Well written, but you can see the author's obvious biases in some of the chapters. If I had worked my way through this book with a pen in hand I might have more to say on a point by point basis, but in a survey here there is so much information. What I expect will be the most useful and interesting part of the book is the bibliography and suggestion for further reading. It made me want to crack back open my old Marx/Engels reader and hit up some of the sections I haven't read yet, mostly Engels's take on the rise of the modern family under capitalism.

On Agape Agape

Having never read Gaddis, but intrigued by the comparisons to several of my favorite authors (Joyce, Pynchon, etc) I decided to read him. Like many teachers putting forth _Dubliners_ or _A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man_ or _The Crying of Lot 49_ as the simpler, smaller books by a "great" author, I chose the shortest one. This book was written at the end of Gaddis's long life, and is the distillation of a lot of his themes and concerns and ideas that populated his earlier, more celebrated works. Apparently. Maybe I shouldn't have picked this book. It was only OK in my opinion. The stream of consciousness thing has been done before, and at times, I thought I was reading a book written in 1928, not 1998 because of the technique. The thing is, I couldn't really tell you what the book was "about." Its an interior rant about an old dying man who is hung up on the nature of art and technology really, but sometimes it made more sense on the page by page level than the global level. The writing and structure and vocabulary and reputation are enough to make me want to read more of his work, but I think I'll go read some Brits first.

On The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

I'm late to the Alexie bandwagon. This book I picked up in Target because the books I was originally in the Target book section looking for wasn't there. I'd heard of "Part Time Indian" largely in context of some woman making noise that her son shouldn't have to read the book because it contains the acknowledgment that teenage boys sometimes think about sex and cuss. Like I said, I didn't even mean to buy this book, but there are ringing accolades on the cover; National Book Award Shield, and blurbs from both Neil Gaiman and Amy Sedaris. How can you go wrong?

Now, I haven't been unaware of the author. I just read a nice adult-oriented story of his in the New Yorker. This was after I bought the book but before I read it. I Picked it up because he actual reading of the new Pynchon book wasn't exciting me as much as the thought of reading the new Pynchon book. I have to say though, I was weary of reading this man's works. I remember when His last book, the story collection "Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven," came out. The people I remember talking about the work, in my mind, were ones that seemed to have a vested interest in inclusion and breaking down the canon. Not that I think either is an inherently bad thing, I just feel that it leads to a fetishization of the Other solely because of the author and his or her works creating them as totemic objects protecting the reader from the evil clutches of the dead straight white men.

But, not a problem here. Sherman Alexie is not a good "Native American" Writer. He's a good writer, period. in this book is able to do things with sentence length, chapter variation and inclusion of other media that only helps to enhance the story. In my mind I would compare it the best of Vonnegut in that. Alexie didn't allow me to put his book down. The story as it is is somewhat of a northwestern Native American _Angela's Ashes_ telling us a litany of bad things happening to the characters in an emotional way. I was crying by page sixteen. But I also laughed out loud several times after that, and then I cried some more. I just have a lot of feelings. The plot isn't too important. Its a coming of age story, but done well. I give it an unqualified recommendation, and I'm glad I picked it up off the shelf.

But finally one qualification. I've come across this in several YA books I've read, and I can imagine it must be difficult for writers not to do sometimes. The characters are deep and complex, but on some level they seem fake. Alexie creates a universe I believe in and populates it with characters that rise above cardboard, better than ol' J. K. Rowling. Good for him. He uses many less pages covering the events of one school year. But a couple of his characters seem too hyper-aware of themselves and what is going on around them for them to be freshmen in high school, especially if the education on tribal lands is as bad as the author sets it up to be. I don't know if this is a flax in the book, or some kind of marketing device to help flatter young readers, saying that by reading this book they are also like these characters in that aspect.

March 5, 2010


On a night when the moon
is so bright, the crisp shadows
darken the ice, once snow. Where
now the cold aligns the crystals,
snowflakes no longer romantic
but mineral hardness freezing
the hairs on my lips from smoke
escaping the mouth. I bring
my numbing hand up, for warmth.
This kiss reminds me of your
soft, frigid touch.