Tuesday, October 10, 2017

You Don't Have To Say You Love Me by Sherman Alexie

Hardcover, 457 pages, Pub June 13th 2017 by Little, Brown and Company ISBN13: 9780316270755 Awards: Andrew Carnegie Medal Nominee for Nonfiction (2018)

I'd never read Sherman Alexie's first great breakout book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I'm not sure why. I was interested; perhaps I was saving it. Instead I chose to read at this time his new memoir which could also be read as a eulogy for his mother.

His upbringing sounds like it was a rough time all round. His parents were alcoholics. Sherman didn't come out unscathed, but he has been reaching out--he is fearless in revealing himself and his family. Perhaps he has found this makes him more likable, relatable.

The end papers of this hardcover memoir are printed with a quilt pattern. Alexie tells us his mother quilted all the time, even through the night. He himself has at least ten quilts of hers and he uses all of them. But when his mother died, he wanted to collect all the quilts she'd left behind and burn them all. I didn't get the impression he did so. For whatever reason.

Lillian, that was her name. Lillian was one of the last speakers of his ancestor's native language. In a chapter entitled "Eulogy," Alexie repeats the phrase My mother was a dictionary over and over, every couple lines, but she never taught me the tribal language. The poem ends,
She always said to me, 'English will be your best weapon.'
She was right, she was right, she was right.
Perhaps my favorite poem is one of his shortest, called "Communion" in which sentiment pairs with form:
we worship
the salmon

because we
eat salmon
The chapter entitled "Missionary Position" will stay with me a very long time. While in high school, one of Alexie's friends said something deeply racist in his company, having momentarily forgotten he was Indian. He ended up dating her for a few years, and once gave her a pawnshop ring that was worth $20. When they broke up, she gave the ring back. He sold it back to the pawnshop for $10.

In the beginning of the book, in a chapter called "Scatalogical," Alexie explains there is something called a grief poop. After everyone had left the funeral home, two days after the death of his mother, Alexie stayed behind to use the restroom. A sign hung on the wall behind the toilet: Please be gentle with our toilet. The pipes are old. Be judicious in your use of toilet paper. He tells us "I took the largest shit of my life. I expelled everything." He ended up breaking up the poop into pieces and had to hold the pieces in his hand so he could flush them in four tries. "Thing was as big as a walrus." I'd never known about grief poops, but it makes sense.

Alexie's work has become indispensable for the well-read American. One cannot claim any credibility as a reader without having dipped a foot into his world and walked awhile in his boots. Reading Alexie is a kind of responsibility.

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Rise and Fall of American Growth by Robert J. Gordon

Hardcover, 784 pages, Pub Jan 12th 2016 by Princeton Univ Press ISBN13: 9780691147727, Language: English, Series: Princeton Economic History of the Western World, Awards: Cundill Prize in Historical Literature Nominee (2016)

The most remarkable thing about this look at economic development in the United States since 1870 are two things: the size of the book, and the fact that it is readable. While size and subject are intimidating, the writing style is friendly and accessible, even to non-economists, and one comes to see the advantages of having all this information in one book rather than in several. Published in 2016 by Princeton University Press, this work must be a source of pride among those who worked on it. It is has real weight.

Since I concentrated my efforts on conclusions rather than proofs, I only skimmed this Hummer-of-a-tome, but I found that each chapter had something useful, surprising, and remarkable about it. What Gordon is saying can have startling implications for how we look at the next forty years economically-speaking. His forecasts will matter to how we construct public policy, e.g., growth will continue to decline, wealth inequalities will continue to increase. Even if he is only showing us the outcomes of what we have wrought, intentionally or not, he helps us to envision what comes next.

As his title foretells, Gordon tries to explain the extraordinary rise in productivity from 1928-1950 and its decline from the 1950-2014 by saying that big innovations along with education and WWII spurred a growth we haven’t seen since, and that even the technological revolution in the early 1990s did not produce as large a change in productivity as earlier innovations like railroads, cars, immigration, financial instruments, women in the marketplace, etc.

What I like about Gordon’s writing is that he proposes we use basic economic theory to explain certain observable phenomenon, like the upsurge in labor productivity in the 1920-1950 interval.
"In a competitive market, the marginal product of labor equals the real wage, and economists have shown that labor’s marginal product under specified conditions is the share of labor in total incomes times output per hour. If the income share of labor remains constant, then the growth rate of the real wage should be equal to that of labor's average product, the same thing as labor productivity. Could an increase in real wages have caused, directly or indirectly, the upsurge in labor productivity that occurred between the 1920s and 1950s?"
We should really be looking at the need to increase real wages now, to solve issues of productivity and growth, taxes and national income, income inequalities and budget deficits. I believe even Republican small-government adherents will be shocked at what increased wages will unleash in the cash-starved labor economy. A corporation's profitability will be affected, but there is plenty of fat in the wage system that can be cut. We can’t force corporations to flatten their pay scales to increase payments at the lower end of wage scale and decrease payments at the top, but we can, and have, used tax policy and other inducements to curb the worst tendencies.

Gordon explanation for the American Great Leap Forward in economic terms was the Great Depression and World War II. The New Deal was the result of the Great Depression, raising real wages and a shrinkage in weekly work hours. Substitution from labor to capital as a result of real wage increase is evident in the data on private equipment investment. Additionally, the reorganization of business after the drop in profits and output increased efficiencies not realized to that time. The effects of a war economy on top of these changes is clear.

What really struck me about Gordon’s charts and graphs is how closely productivity and growth aligned with the entry of women into the marketplace in significant numbers, and how, when they retreated to fuel the baby boom, growth subsided. Know it is only a factor, but just sayin’…maybe we should let women run the country and the economy for awhile 👧🏽 and see what happens. There is no question there would be changes in how we do business.

Ultimately Gordon is not prescriptive except to say that we should be putting much more money into preschool education than we are currently doing, given its proven benefits. We could also basically ‘brain drain’ the rest of the world through immigration policy, if we wanted. That idea makes me uncomfortable, but so does the irrational immigration policy we have been pursuing for the past two administrations. The immigration policies of the current administration do not bear discussion.

Paul Krugman reviews Robert Gordon.

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Friday, September 29, 2017

Kingdom of Olives and Ash: Writers Confront the Occupation, Edited by Michael Chabon & Ayelet Waldman

Paperback, 448 pages, Pub May 30th 2017 by Harper Perennial ISBN13: 9780062431783

These collected essays about the writers’ separate experiences in the occupied territories of Israel/Palestine have a kind of cumulative bludgeoning effect. The reader passes through stages of rage and resistance to the kind of stupefaction one encounters in a bombing war. Why on earth would anyone do such things? They’ve been led to it slowly, gradually, until the ‘enemy’ is ‘other’ and normal human rights rules do not apply.

In a very short introduction, Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman admit they’d not paid attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years because it was such a dispiriting subject. But in 2014 Waldman attended a conference organized by Breaking the Silence, a nonprofit organization composed of former Israeli soldiers who had worked in the occupied territories and who opposed Israel policies there as a result.

When Waldman related to Chabon what she had learned and seen during and after the conference in 2014,
“…we both began to realize that storytelling itself—bearing witness, in vivid and clear language, to things personally seen and incidents encountered—has the power to engage the attention of people who, like us, have long since given up paying attention, or have simply given up.”
The stories are absorbing and diverse and really give us an idea what life has been like, and is like now, for Palestinians. An international cast of writers, Geraldine Brooks, Colm Tóibín, Madeleine Thien, Dave Eggers, Anita Desai, among many others, have each looked, thought, and written their experience. It is exhilarating, infuriating, surprising, and meaningful. We learn new things. We see what they have seen. Injustices are recognized, spoken, acknowledged. And the writing, well, it is everything we anticipated.

Reading this book all at once puts pressure on one’s peace of mind. Read it in pieces if you like, one or two by authors you admire, or by authors you’d never heard of. Just read a couple to get a sense of the crisis again, to see how it has evolved. Just bear witness a little while. This is something happening right now, as we sit down to a plentiful dinner in a comfortable chair. Just a moment to recognize that this is something we can actually do something about. This isn’t a natural disaster. It is policy grown gnarly and twisted over years.

Mario Vargas Llosa has an essay in the collection and his view is long, and wide. “…I feel that the ever more colonialist bias of recent governments—I am referring to the governments of Sharon and Netanyahu—may be terribly prejudicial to Israeli democracy and the future of their country.” He, like most of us in the U.S., love Israelis for being irrepressible, but we do not love what they have done in this case. They are losing their national identity, not enhancing it.

My two three favorite essays in the bunch are written by Michael Chabon, Rachel Kushner, and Helon Habila. In “Giant in a Cage,” Chabon visits with a Palestinian businessman who set up some mini-malls anchored by a grocery store in Ramallah. There is something Chabon did that made me feel like I was sitting in that car that was forced to go the long way around an arbitrary checkpoint: he left the uncomfortable silences in his story. His host stopped speaking for a time after encountering the soldiers manning the checkpoint.
“The soldier roused himself from his torpor long enough to shrug one shoulder elaborately and give Sam Bahour a look in which were mingled contempt, incredulity, and suspicion about the state of San’s sanity. It appeared to have been the stupidest, most pointless, least answerable question anyone had ever asked the soldier…[he] had no idea why he had been ordered to come stand with his gun and his somnolent young comrade at this particular fork in the road on this particular afternoon, and if he did, the last person with whom he would have shared this explanation was Sam…”
Encountering the young soldiers completely derailed Sam Bahour and Chabon’s plans, apparently so common an occurrence that another incident of it just added to the indignities and humiliations suffered daily by Palestinians, even Palestinians who have gained some stature in the community. But look also what the circumstance has done to the Israeli soldiers. They are stupid with boredom at their post, and have learned to treat Palestinians as lesser beings. They are likewise suppressing their natural human dignity and are trashing the social contract humans have with one another. This isn't war, remember, or so they've told us.

Occasionally when reading these pieces, one gets a glimpse of what the policies surrounding the illegal occupation are doing to the children, our future. Rachel Kushner’s story, “Mr. Nice Guy,” centered on her visit to the Shuafat Refugee Camp in East Jerusalem. Her description of the high-rise buildings there evoke an involuntary embarrassed laugh, they sound so…unsound. The young boy following her around as she looks up at the structure says, “This building is stupidly built. It’s junk.” He and his family live there. See what I mean about infuriating?

And Habila's "The Separation Wall" gives us a honest man's incredulity. Just read it.

Each story gives a different aspect of living in the occupied territories that you’d never thought of. Read one or two three just to get a sense. A brief Interview with the editors Chabon and Waldman gives a sense of what they intended by writing this book.

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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki, translated by Erico Sugita

Hardcover, 288 pages, Pub April 11th 2017 by W. W. Norton Company (first pub June 12th 2015) Orig Title ぼくたちに、もうモノは必要ない。 断捨離からミニマリストへ ISBN13: 9780393609035

Sasaki’s photographs in the beginning of this book jolt one awake to what he means by minimalism. Some people are so radical that it makes the rest of us look like hoarders. But by the end of this very simply-written and superbly-argued short book, most of the arguments we have for cluttering our space and complicating our lives are defeated.

One must recognize at some point that whatever dreams are mixed up in purchases we have made, the potential of the ideas quickly fade when not acted on immediately, as in when the objects are “saved” for something we vaguely anticipate in the future. In the minimalist outlook, objects should do some kind of worthwhile duty, even if that duty is to make us happy, or please our senses.

When objects become a burden, or chastise us by their silent immobility, collecting dust, literally taking up the space we need to breathe, we can give them away, throw them out, auction them off, or otherwise get them out of our lives so that some potential can grow back into our ideas. That means even books we bought with the intention to read but which make us sad every time we look at them.

But don’t take my word for it. Sasaki really does have an answer for every possible objection you may have. For instance, #37. Discarding memorabilia is not the same as discarding memories. Sasaki quotes Tatsuya Nakazaki: “Even if we were to throw away photos and records that are filled with memorable moments, the past continues to exist in our memories…All the important memories that we have inside us will naturally remain.” I am not convinced this is so at every stage of life, but think there is a natural life to what we need in terms of archival items. If your children don’t want it, you don’t need to keep all of it. Keep the ones that matter only.

Note that Sasaki recommends scanning documents like old letters that are important to you because you can’t go out and buy another if you find you were too radical in your culling. However, even the archival record becomes a burden when it becomes too large unless well-marked with dates, etc. He admits that letting go of those stored memories is a further step in true minimalist living.

The freedom one experiences when one owns fewer things is undeniable. Sasaki expresses the joy the experiences when he visits a hotel or a friend who uses big bath towels. He’d limited himself to a microfiber quick-drying hand towel for all his household needs, and enjoyed the lack of big loads of washing at home and using big thick towels while he was out: a twofer of happiness.

We are encouraged to find our own minimalism. Everyone has their own limits and definition. The author explains that #15. Minimalism is a method and a beginning. The concept is like a prologue and the act of minimizing is a story that each practitioner needs to create individually. We definitely don’t need all we have, and the things we own aren’t who we are. We are still us, underneath all the stuff. Some people will find this reassuring; others may find it disconcerting.

At the end of this small book, Sasaki reminds us the clarity that comes with minimalism. Concentration is easier. Waste is minimized. Social relationships are enhanced. You don’t need forty seconds in a disaster to decide what to take. You live in the now.

The translation of this book is fantastic, by Eriko Sugita. It does not read like a translation, but as an intimate sharing by someone who has been through the hard work of paring down one’s possessions so that his own personality shines through. It is a kind of gift. Even if one doesn’t throw a thing away (I heartily doubt that will be the case) after (or during) the reading of this book, the notions are seeds. Gratitude grows in the absence of things.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee

Hardcover, 288 pages, Pub February 21st 2017 by Viking (first published August 18th 2016) Orig Title: The Schooldays of Jesus ISBN13: 9780735222663 Literary Awards: Man Booker Prize Nominee for Longlist (2016)

Coetzee’s quiet skill shows us how an old bible story parallels events that happen today in every country—the dislocation of migration for instance—making us scour the landscape for examples of God working through us. By telling the old story in a new way, we think anew about Christian values—charity, kindness, and love for instance—and what they really mean in practice.

The city Estrella to which Davíd, Inés and Simón escape sounds remarkably like Australia when spoken. Davíd attends a school without regular classes, called the Dance Academy, which teaches numbers through dance by calling the numerals down from the stars. His teacher, Ana Magdalena, is a beautiful woman. After she is horribly attacked by a man who claims to love her, Davíd discovers her body.

The cast of characters is more transparent than the earlier book, though were I to go back to that earlier piece now, having read this one, I’m sure I would find more in it that fits into the myth. What we find ourselves contemplating is the lack of stability in the world, and our need for the society of others. We learn the difference between passion and love between people (passion is selfish while love is unselfish), but also the perhaps contradictory need for passion when choosing a field of study.

We learn that there is evil, that sometimes people do evil things. There is something…something along the lines of “pay attention” that makes the point that we must not be careless with our actions, but should have reasons for what we do. Until the heart of a bear can be put into a human being, Simón tells Davíd, people will have to take responsibility for their actions. “I don’t know why” is no kind of an excuse for bad behavior. We’ll find out in the next installment what happens to those who knowingly do things that will harm others.

Coetzee is such a master. His descriptions of children’s speech and actions are so perceptive—like the dog Bolívar’s swagger—that we trust his descriptions of the sisters on the farm, and Señor Arroyo’s sister Mercedes, who finally teaches Simón to dance, to remember, and maybe to get his passion back.

I like everything about this series. Coetzee gives it to us in installments rather than trying to make one big book of it. As a result, the stories are slim things, which allows us to read with attention. After all, the underlying story is going to be familiar to most of the world. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim believers have all learned the life of Jesus.

The book is available in audio, produced by HighBridge and read by James Cameron Stewart. It is listening to Stewart’s very British accent that I discovered that Estrella sounds so much like Australia. We know Simón and family learned Spanish when they left Novilla, but I'm going to guess the accent you have in your head for this family is not British. No matter. Stewart does a magnificent job. Read or listen, this layered novel is a real treat.

I’d been pronouncing Coetzee’s name wrong for years, so I copy the wiki for you: John Maxwell "J. M." Coetzee ([kutˈseː], kuut-SEE. It occurred to me that I would not be afraid to meet Coetzee, though I am rather timid when I consider meeting other authors I admire. Somehow I imagine he would be kind, and neither he nor I would need to perform.

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Leona - The Die is Cast by Jenny Rogneby

Paperback, 464 pages, Pub August 1st 2017 by Other Press (NY) (first published January 1st 2014) Orig Title: Leona Tärningen är kastad ISBN13: 9781590518823

This debut fiction has so many divergences from a standard police procedural that we are held in thrall to the last page, not believing our eyes. During the process of investigating a series of bank robberies, Investigator Leona Lindberg reveals certain unsavory truths about her police department and the people in it. Someone abused as a child apparently turned around as an adult and inflicted the same kind of suffering on another child. For money.

In fact, there is so much going on that is different in this novel that it begs to be discussed in a book group. One of the first things that captured my attention is that the author is a woman of color, born in Ethiopia, adopted and schooled in Sweden. She became a criminal investigator in Stockholm after graduation from Stockholm University, gleaning enough information to create the character Leona Lindberg and the circumstances under which Leona does her job.

It is not clear that Leona is a woman of color. It is never mentioned in this first novel. Leona is desirable—several men on the workforce make plays for her attention at different points—and her hair is described as “brown, curly and fluffy.” When I realized that Rogneby wrote this novel without pointing to race, I realized how unusual that would be in America.

The writer Chris Abani, born in Nigeria and now an American citizen, says America has a unique relationship with race: “Slavery in America is not really over.” Blacks from countries with black majorities naturally think of themselves differently than do black Americans. Jenny Rogneby, though growing up in a white majority country like Sweden, is also different than American blacks, who probably wouldn’t consider writing a book where race is not mentioned simply because it is so much a part of their daily calculations. Even now I am here having a big discussion about race when it is not even mentioned in this book. What does this say about us? What does it say about Jenny Rogneby?

Of course, Leona has more important things to worry about than skin color. She registers on the autism spectrum, and has a son with Crohn’s disease who requires expensive repeat surgeries to fix a long-term life-or-death ailment. Her daughter is of an age to require parental oversight, and her husband gets insufficient attention. Leona herself stays up many nights to gamble online. Meanwhile, she is heading up one of the most perplexing series of robberies in modern Swedish crime history. It’s a lot to juggle.

The novel itself at several points strains credulity. But Rogneby manages to pull us back from the brink, partly because she is coming at this from such a strange angle that we are dying to see how she is going to manage it. Knowing what we do about large bureaucracies where everyone is very busy, we sometimes can buy her explanations for how things are overlooked. If we remember we have information that the police department in general does not, in contrast to most novels of this sort, we could be convinced.

It is worth hanging on to the end because Rogneby manages to pull off something so devilishly clever and so disturbingly depraved that we really feel as though the term “crime novel” has just been invented.

The multi-talented Jenny Rogneby worked as a pop singer in Sweden before going to university for criminology and working for some years with Stockholm City Police Department. In that authors reveal a great deal about themselves in what they write, I will admit I looked for clues to Rogneby’s experiences in her work. According to her website, Rogneby
“took a year's leave from work, sold her apartment and all her furniture in Stockholm, moved abroad and wrote LEONA - The Die is Cast. She submitted her manuscript to Swedish publishers and 10 publishing houses were interested in publishing her debut. Now the book series is sold to 13 countries and the film rights are sold to Hollywood.”
You must admit, her life as been interesting so far. Might as well see where it goes from here.

A short interview is attached below:

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Monday, September 25, 2017

Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists & Writers by Janet Malcolm

Hardcover, 320 pages, Pub May 7th 2013 by FSG ISBN13: 9780374157692 Literary Awards: PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay Nominee for Shortlist (2014), National Book Critics Circle Award Nominee for Criticism (2013)

Now this is a different kettle of fish. I just wrote a non-review for Malcolm’s The Purloined Clinic: Selected Writings in which I said I didn’t understand a word of her dense essays, all psychoanalysis and people I’d never heard of. This collection of Malcolm’s work, by contrast, has some kind of entrée. For one thing, she writes about famously reclusive artists like Salinger (“Salinger’s Cigarettes”) and Arbus (“Good Pictures”), and although she may go on a bit long (IMHO), her unique point of view and piercing intelligence makes us see something anew.

Even the Introduction by fellow New Yorker writer Ian Frazier has insights that tweak our imaginations: when discussing her interview and subsequent piece about Thomas Struth [photographer of the Queen], Frazier tells us Ms. Malcolm stood by her decision to include a minor exchange which made Struth look slightly ridiculous and seemed unfair because “at the level of fabulousness where Struth operates there’s a risk of everything becoming so wonderful and nice that meaninglessness sets in.”

This, perhaps, is where I did not give her enough credit in her earlier book. There is something to be said for people who can operate at the level of “the best we have” and retain their balance. Perhaps psychoanalysis is an absolute prerequisite at that level. When I proclaimed archly that her then-audience “aren’t educated that way anymore,” I meant “the best we have” now have to run the gantlet of not-particularly-well-educated public opinion rather than the considered opinion of an educated few. In the end, perhaps “the best we have” is now judged by different criterion, overlapping only partially with that category circa 1990 and earlier.

That having been said, were one conversant with some of the figures she speaks of, this would be a delicious, gossipy, and yes, insightful read. “Girl of the Zeitgeist” outlines Rosalind Krauss, formerly (at the time this piece came out in 1986) of the Artforum board.
“Rosalind Krauss’s loft, on Greene Street, is one of the most beautiful living places in New York. Its beauty has a dark, forceful, willful character. Each piece of furniture and every object of use for decoration has evidently had to pass a severe test before being admitted into this disdainfully interesting room…No one can leave this loft without feeling a little rebuked…Similarly, Rosalind Krauss’s personality—she is quick, sharp, cross, tense, bracingly derisive, fearlessly uncharitable—makes one’s own ‘niceness’ seem somehow dreary and anachronistic.”
It is possible to endlessly quote Janet Malcolm’s incisive views of her subjects. So, yes, okay, I get Janet Malcolm’s special skill. At her peak production, it must have been something…to know her and/or to enjoy her pieces.

But I think the world has changed now. No point in being sad about that. And Helen Garner has nothing to be embarrassed about in her own writing. She is as clear as fast-flowing ice melt, and is bridging this changing world.

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