Monday, January 30, 2017

John Crow's Devil by Marlon James

Hardcover, 226 pages Pub September 1st 2005 by Akashic Books Original Title John Crow's Devil ISBN13: 9781888451825

Religion, corruption, promiscuity, sodomy, violence, bloodshed, humor, terror, betrayal, redemption, salvation. These are the subjects of Marlon James’ work, particularly this debut novel about a town in Jamaica in the midst of a preacher war. Go no further if reading about these things will affect your judgment of what is art and what is not. We all have our limits, and James is happy to play right to the edge.

There is no Table of Contents in this novel, and midway through, we may find we need a roadmap. Where is James going, and how did we get here? That is when I noticed he began this book, before Part I, with “The End,” three pages which confused and frightened and warned us what was to come. A “murder of crows” hangs around the yard of one Widow Greenfield until one day she discovers many of them lifeless and bloody on the grass in front of her house.

When author Kaylie Jones was contacted twenty minutes after Marlon James won the International Man Booker Prize for Literature in 2015 for A Brief History of Seven Killings , she said that acceptance and affirmation for him was a long time coming. Jones is credited with “discovering” James, passing his first manuscript for John Crow’s Devil on to an agent and an editor back in 2003. She was sure of James’ talent from that first time they met. “His writing was so confident. There was not one word that wasn’t precise. That voice was already there.”

The manuscript that eventually became John Crow’s Devil had famously been rejected 78 times before Ms. Jones saw his potential. James was 35 years old when it was finally published in 2005, his first novel. That means James was in his twenties when he wrote it, and this is the thing that slays: a twenty-something with shuttercock eyes writing sentences like
"Her mother was on the dresser, her sweaty back greasing the mirror as the man rammed inside her. Lucinda imagined his cock as stubby as he was plunging in and out of her mother’s vagina that was as loose as she was. Then he shifted and she saw it for a second, his penis disappearing into her mother and his jerky balls bouncing like elastic."
There is more than a little aggression in that passage, and an exactitude one isn’t expecting. But the whole book has this level of keen observation and imagination, speaking of forbidden things, blasphemies, and essentially…reporting, judging, laughing. Some of the horror and anger and judgment manifest are probably even nonfiction.

Two preachers fight one another over the ‘godly’ leadership of a town. One man is an alcoholic, and the other appears possessed. Both of them struggle with sexual temptations; neither fits any usual definition of godly, or good men. The townspeople, filled with the superstitions of their culture as well as warm natures mixed with hard-eyed realism, carol an absurdist relief, making comment upon one another’s needs, or sometimes jettisoning their good sense altogether under religious influence.

In an interview, James tells Charlie Rose that at this time in Jamaica he hadn’t yet publicly acknowledged his homosexuality but considered himself “Christian celibate…and believing it.” Only when he subsequently moved to St. Paul, Minnesota to teach writing, and when he was forty-four years old, did he acknowledge his sexuality. There is a lot, a whole lot, of explicit language and description of sexual acts, only some consensual, in James’ novels, but he appears to capture something that we recognize as real, even if we prefer not to look at it. “Violence should be violent,” he tells us, “Sexuality should risk the pornographic. It’s a fine line.”

Marlon James writes conversation in dialect, perhaps one reason his first book was not accepted immediately. Now, of course, dialect seems the most basic effort one can make to represent a culture. But James also manages the difficult feat of keeping readers unsure if they know what exactly is happening without them losing the thread altogether, or giving up. His storytelling definitely leads readers in the direction of some kind of reckoning for evil, thoughtless, or uncaring behaviors, no matter what the preachers, with their contrasting styles, have to say. The murder of crows and the flight of doves are both menacing, and vengeful. But the ending, in a two-page chapter called “The Beginning,” is reassuring. This novel feels brave, unflinching, and new.

And if you are still unconvinced about James' creativity, read this about his new project and then tell me he isn't looking deeply into the myths we tell ourselves, and exposing all.

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Building the New American Economy by Jeffrey D. Sachs

Hardcover, 152 pages Expected publication: February 7th 2017 by Columbia University Press ISBN13: 9780231184045

Jeffrey Sachs’ new book, which runs about 150 pages, has a Foreword by Bernie Sanders. Sachs directly addresses the new Trump administration, and makes suggestions about our nation’s priorities. Sachs wrote it fast, since the election, and it shows. He'd supported Bernie, but Sanders was not explicit when it came to running the government. These are Sachs' ideas, but knowing there is someone in political life that he supports helps to flesh out Sanders' ideas as well.

Sachs allows that we might be able to comprehend priority spending of the government, so shares some national budget particulars:
“Federal taxes account for about 18 percent of GDP, mostly income and payroll taxes…Together with state and local taxes, the total tax collection of all levels of government amounts to around 32 percent of GDP.”
On the spending side, first is military spending at 5% of GDP. Next is what Sachs calls “mandatory spending” but what Republicans call “entitlements:” Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, income support programs, etc. This is a rising share of GDP, at 12.6%. The third category of spending is interest payments of government debt, which will rise when interest rates increase. Public debt to national income is about 75%, and average interest charges on that debt are at about 1.5% of GDP per annum. Finally, we have non security discretionary spending, or our investment in the future, which in the scenario Sachs talks about here, doesn’t even make it to the drawing board unless we take on further debt.

The reason Sachs gives us is that income taxes, etc are only 18% of GDP while military, mandatory spending, and interest payments alone are 19%. He is a smart guy, and he may be right, but if you are asking us to decide on which categories or programs to cut, I will need to see the whole budget, many thanks. [Unfortunately the graphs and charts are not reproduced in the ebook of this pre-publication galley.]

Anyway, Sachs suggests we cut military spending and increase discretionary spending commensurately, leaving the other categories to be adjusted in smaller ways. In theory, I don’t have a problem with this. I have lately weighed good and bad in American foreign policy in the past fifty years, and see lots of room for a reduced role, though one has to acknowledge the vacuum of leadership is going to be filled, perhaps by a country we don’t admire much, or at all.

When we abdicate as a superpower, we also jettison some of the trust and reliance of our allies, as some of their positions and spending were predicated on our own. It is a much more fragmented and divided world, a world that may not be so amenable to policies the U.S. supports. And Sachs’ proposals for the future are all about global cooperation. He suggests that we use our military spending instead on global development projects, which will keep some portion of goodwill headed our way.

Sachs also recommends a value-added tax like they have in Scandinavia which would raise another 3-4% of income. The huge discrepancies in income from top to bottom of the U.S. income ladder will still be there, they just won’t be as great, and more in line with the world’s other great democracies. Sachs is even willing to consider restructuring corporate taxes, like Trump has already proposed, but only “if combined with an end to corporate loopholes and foreign tax deferral provisions.” Definitely one of the main income disparities is who even pays taxes in the U.S.

Sachs looks not very far into the future and see some major changes in our economy: an end to internal combustion mobility and the beginning of a low-carbon lifestyle, regardless of government leadership. It would help if government was in front, using their think tanks and scientific offices to help direct some of the changes, but what we really have to guard against is allowing entrenched corporate interests to hijack our future and investment money. We can decide these things without government, though.

Trump has stated he wants states to make their own decisions on many things we have in the past asked the federal government to do. States with wealth, educated workforces, and well-funded universities (like Massachusetts, California, and New York) may make out very well, drawing more similarly-minded folks to them, and exacerbating the cross-talk divisiveness among the states. They’d have to capture taxes from individuals who wish to work, but not live, in their states. But my feeling is, if we can’t work together within our own country, how can we expect to work across national boundaries on important issues like climate change, exploration, and energy supplies?

When Sachs discusses the changes in the workplace, I find my credibility meter reading low. I agree that even educated workers will be replaced in the modern economy as computers and machines get more capable. But Sachs is suggesting that older, experienced workers pay some part of their wages to younger people who cannot find jobs.

Hello! We’re already doing that! It’s called taxes, and it is a stupid idea. Older workers, whether they want to believe it or not, are going to die, and if they haven’t mentored young people to get experience and be able to take on the stress of creativity everyday, they may be surprised when the whole show goes tits up. [This was Hillary Clinton’s problem. She thought she needed to do everything herself.]

We cannot continue to have older workers stay in the workplace as long as they want—and continue to decline—keeping younger folk from earning and gaining experience, let alone spur creativity. May I suggest this is a real problem? People who have been working for forty or fifty years cannot keep up, no matter what they believe about themselves. And it is not good for the country.

Sachs has one idea towards the end that is kind of interesting: that Wall Street be tasked with earning and churning the financial investment monies for our infrastructure retooling. I actually really like that idea, and think the incentives could be restructured to focus on this. Once the wonky windfall profits not only on Wall Street, but everywhere in corporate America, are tempered with reasonable tax policy and closing of tax havens and loopholes, people might remember they must play well with others. We don’t have long, however: we should already be well into flood abatement.

There are lots of other things lightly touched on in this book, including a discussion of why “free trade” is not free for everyone. Sachs has a blog where he makes notes and posts articles and media accounts that he find interesting or thinks we need to discuss. In the summer of 2016, his important and informative discussion about the election, globalization, immigration, and Brexit was subsequently picked up by NPR and discussed on radio. He pointed to what is now called “populist” anger and explains the real substantive issues behind this. Jeffrey Sachs is professor of economics and sustainable development at Columbia University, former director of the Earth Institute, and special advisor to UN Secretary General Ban Kin-moon. He is the author of The End of Poverty.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Nicotine by Gregor Hens, translated by Jen Calleja

Paperback, 157 pages Pub January 10th 2017 by Other Press; November 4th 2015 by Fitzcarraldo Editions (first published March 3rd 2011) Orig Title Nikotin ISBN 1910695076 (ISBN13: 9781910695074)

The story Hens tells of his struggle with nicotine addiction sometimes makes us laugh, though of course addiction is anything but funny. And he had it bad, real bad. The time he spends detailing his addiction is time he still indulges, for a little while, his obsession with nicotine, a drug which Will Self tells us in the Introduction is like taking an upper and downer at the same time:
"The first few drags after a period of abstinence induced head spin and dry mouth, while a drowsy numbness crept over my extremities. Soon enough this narcotics phase was succeeded by excitation: spit balled in my mouth, my palms itched, my heartbeat accelerated—in my own small and unsophisticated way, staring at the algal scurf on the duck pond, I believed I could achieve something."
Maybe only people that know what he is talking about can laugh at that. But Hens picks up where Self leaves off, his short history of relapses an opportunity to forgive himself and to try to understand what happened physically and psychologically—nicotine is psychoactive—to cause and stoke his need. And to laugh in the face of his addiction is a kind of fierce refusal to submit: "I’ll write my way out of my addiction by telling its story."

Addiction stories tell us something about humans, plot points on a neuroscience graph. Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a moving monograph of a country doctor suffering from morphine addiction. And I will never forget reading Carolyn Knapp describe her addiction to alcohol, how just the sound of ice against glass would calm her down, as she pictured in her mind a glass, clouded with cold and beaded with sweat. It cheered her up, and took away brain strain. Hens’ addiction was something like that: he enjoyed running into groups of smokers huddled in doorways, imagining that they are smoking on his behalf, for his inner contentment. Sometimes he even nodded to them, until he realized they might think him predatory or odd.

There was a time when everyone seemed to smoke. Hens reminds us what it was like growing up with parents who smoked, in his case chain-smoked in a closed vehicle for hours while he and his brothers clustered in the back seat, wreathed in a dense, noxious cloud. When he reached his destination, he and his brothers would stumble, wooly-headed and thirsty, from the car, exhausted from their journey. Certainly his aunt, who was paid a monthly pension in cigarettes in lieu of cash but who smoked only occasionally, might have had something to do with his parents’, and subsequently his own, cigarette habit.

But his recognition that “my personality is a smoker’s personality” must have come from his early family life, when smoking in secret was a way to both defy his parents and earn their love. How confusing the roots of addiction become when examined closely, and how, ultimately, irrelevant. Whatever the reason, he had to break his love affair with tobacco. He was a connoisseur; tobacco was a hobby, a kind of art, something that gave him pleasure but which became as necessary as eating. He was obsessed, addicted, planning his consumption. His life, his passion for sports, and his lover were suffering.

Every person dealing with addiction experiences it in their own way, and Hens recalls for us several others writers who have explicitly chronicled their nicotine habits, among them Italo Svevo, for whom the last cigarette, which Hens begins to familiarly call “LC,” was always remembered with great intensity and affection, while the relapse cigarette was always the one Hens himself craved: “…the rush of relapsing is a very special gift… a kind of investment that would be paid back five or ten times over.”

Hens recalls a heavy smoker friend of his who could get on an airplane for a flight of eight or more hours and suffer nary a twinge of desire for the length of the flight: “There’s no point in thinking about something that’s forbidden, he says.” That friend would do well in America, I think, while Hens himself, once forbidden to smoke, can think of nothing else.

Apparently studies done on rats at Duke University by Theodore Slotkin
"confirm that the consumption of nicotine during adolescence leads to permanent neurological and functional changes that cannot be reversed. The changed structures are still detectable even after the (addictive) behavior has been stopped, an effect that is especially pronounced in male animals."
Hens is philosophical about this, unable to say what he could have done even had he known as an adolescent. He reminds us every couple of paragraphs that he no longer smokes. It is a thought, a chant, a wish, a dream, an aspiration. It is a fact.

The book has a strangely old-fashioned feel, perhaps because smoking is so long out of fashion now in America, and because of an anecdote about Hens spending a summer in Chungking Mansions in Hong Kong, “filling a pile of just my underpants…which never became the great postcolonial novel I had intended…” Can Chungking Mansions still exist? But Hens’ writing is a little addictive, too, as when he veers delightfully off topic several times, once to relate a cycling accident which involved him waking up, bandaged, in the “reanimation” department of a strange hospital. It freaked him out, understandably.

For anyone who has ever considered writing about a psychological obstacle, addiction, or other obsession, to rid oneself of it, this is a fine example of how one man has managed to make his life larger, richer, and more meaningful than his scourge.

Two terrific reviews of this title have recently been published, one in The New Yorker, and one in the New York Times.

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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Hardcover, 368 pages Expected publication: February 14th 2017 by Random House ISBN13: 9780812995343

The form of this novel is what readers will notice first. It begins as a series of quotes from reporters’ notebooks, eyewitness accounts, historians using original sources, and we must assume, Civil War-era gossip rags, describing an 1862 White House party which a thousand or more people attended. To say the affair was elaborate understates the case. Apparently when a thousand hungry guests descended on the tables of food, the quantity was such that it looked untouched after the assault.

Some of the reports mention that this lavish dinner party was going on during the war between the states (1862), and while Lincoln’s favorite son, Willie, lay dying upstairs, probably of typhoid. Some accounts criticize rather than report. Some are clearly inaccurate: “There was a large moon”; or “there was no moon.” Surely there can be no argument about these truths; one of the accounts must be untrue.

As the novel progresses, it changes form. The reportage becomes a chorus, as voices of the bardo—that state of existence between death and rebirth—declaim and consider the suffering of Lincoln as he contemplates his son’s death. Father and son (who’d been but a child!) had been intimates, together at every opportunity, heads often canted towards one another in deep conversation. The voices of the bardo are bawdy, rowdy, yet weirdly profound in their discussion of how fleeting life and how final death and what we learn in the course of a life and what we learn only when we’ve lost it all.

A bardo implies rebirth, but these characters appear to be looking only to escape everlasting nothingness, and enjoy discussing and dissecting the lives of others. Occasionally one of the dead will enjoy a peek at their future (best) selves, which they hadn’t the time or the opportunity to attain. It can be quite moving as each considers his or her life. And here, amidst the humor and tragedy and regret and outright joy—the stuff of life—resides the talent of George Saunders, as he tries to reach his best self, whether in love, work, or understanding.

It’s difficult to believe this is Saunders’ first published novel, and yet that is its designation. It doesn’t even seem like a novel, but immediately brings to mind a play, or a radio show, something meant to be spoken aloud, in its many and varied voices. The thread of the novel is not difficult to follow like some avant-garde works, though one may wonder if Lincoln’s sorrow at the death of Willie is all Saunders meant to convey. I think not.

I think there is another step that Saunders wants us to take: that the spirits of the bardo (how it begins to sound like bordello, the more we know of it!) influenced Lincoln when his son died, giving him insight, empathy, and the strength to carry on with his responsibilities, and to bear his personal sorrow, but also those of a nation at war. We have yet to meet the man who could have stood it alone.
"His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact…We must try to see one another in this way…As suffering, limited beings…Perennially outmatched by circumstance, inadequately endowed with compensatory graces…And yet…Our grief must be defeated; it must not become our master, and make us ineffective…We must, to do the maximum good, bring the thing to its swiftest halt and…Kill more efficiently…Must end suffering by causing more suffering…His heart dropped at the thought of the killing…"
So, we must fight, if fighting is required, to defeat wherever oppression exists. We must work together, and we’ll need all the help we can get from those who have glimpsed truth, and the value of kindness.

In a radio podcast with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, Saunders tells us that in his research he discovers that Lincoln could have negotiated an end to the war in 1862 when the casualty levels were terrifically high, sometimes one thousand dead in a day. He must have wanted to end the slaughter so desperately, but one requirement of the agreement would have been to return the slaves to the South, and Lincoln simply refused. The black people who make an appearance in this novel lived cruelly unfair and insecure lives.

One could make the case that a novel of this kind is not unprecedented. Think of the ancient Greeks with their choruses of wise and not-so-wise spirits; Italy’s Dante with his examination of the good or bad we do in life affecting our placement in the afterlife; England’s Shakespeare with his oft-found articulate spirits remarking on the action; Ireland’s Beckett (and his influence Joyce) for language and the insight wrapped in foolishness; America’s Barth and Mamet for exactitude and a deep, abiding humor when rationality might suggest despair.

The rich variety of voices in this novel are captured in the audio production of this book. In an interview published in, Saunders explains how the Penguin Random House team worked with him (kudos, everyone) to get the requisite 166 voices, including famous stage and screen actors like David Sedaris, Ben Stiller, Lena Dunham, among others, to speak the parts so that it sounds like the “American chorale” Saunders was trying to convey.

At the same time, I found it helpful to have a written text to clarify Saunders’ experimental form which uses footnotes interspersed with conversation among ghosts. I adored what Saunders was able to tell us from his advanced age of 58 years—the stuff about not doing anything you can’t adequately explain to heaven’s gatekeepers, and how “it wasn’t my fault” actually isn’t much of a defense when one has been lingering in the afterworld for more than fifty years, unable to convince even a bleeding-heart saint that one wasn’t a douche that time.

Below is a three-minute NewYorker Video introducing us to the work and life of George Saunders:

Clip of the many-voiced audio production of Lincoln in the Bardo:

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Friday, January 13, 2017

We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This is an essay, read by Adichie on audio, concerning her upbringing in Nigeria and what she noticed in America after moving here to live and work. It strikes me as a perfect kind of essay to give American teens in school to read/listen to because they can then discuss her ideas in the context of "this American life."

Adichie is clear that one doesn't have to hate men or wear un-sexy clothing to be a feminist. A feminist is someone who allows every person, whatever their sexuality, to use all parts of their personality and skill set in their daily life. Men can be feminists, and generally are those we all like the best.

Adichie has a wonderfully rich speaking voice and speaks slowly and clearly enough that even unfamiliar ideas have time to catch hold before the next sentence comes up.

Best of all, Adichie is a black woman explaining why we are not talking now about human rights, or black rights, or any other kind of rights. We are focusing today on women's rights, and she keeps eyes on the prize. Worthwhile.

Adichie had done a 30-minute TED talk of this in 2013, from which the audio script is drawn. She has remastered and smoothed the talk since this time, but the essence is here. She is a lovely spokesperson for women's rights.

So glad this has caught fire. It goes without saying that, around the world, nations and cultures are yearning to hear this message. This talk is available as an ebook, a paperback from major retailers. At the end of January 2017, the 45-minute audiofile produced by Penguin Random House Audio will be available for purchase from major audio retailers.

Here is an excerpt of Adichie reading her essay:

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You Can't Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson

Paperback, 320 pages Published October 4th 2016 by Plume Books Original TitleYou Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain ISBN13: 9780143129202

We may not be in a post racial society but I tell you what: when funky, funny Phoebe can tell us what white people do that makes her crazy, and why she doesn’t want to be anybody’s token black friend, I think we’ve moved the needle since the last century. I remember the first time an African man told me that the only pictures he’d had taken in his years of graduate school were those taken by a Singaporean man who knew how to get the camera to register his skin color and expression. Robinson says something similar here: maybe it’s best if we first acknowledge a color difference before we declare it doesn’t matter.

Robinson does plenty of things in this “breakout book deal” but the thing that drew me in was the chance to learn, unfiltered, how black women had such dope-fantastic hair while white folk have to make do with boring thin stuff that flies away and looks pretty much the same everyday, no matter what we do to it. I first learned a little about the time and energy and money serious black hair coiffeurs require in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah, but now I think I get it. And no, I don’t think anyone should have to do this so that other folks will love them more. It is, however, an art form, another art form that black folk have created, perfected, and strutted.

Shonda Rhimes, in her book Year of Yes, tells us as a teen she tried to get her hair looking like Diana Ross every morning before classes. I did the same thing with some magazine model or other whose look was so far from mine that a million years of evolution wouldn’t have changed that difference between us. It is definitely not worth the effort. And the “creamy crack” or “crack cream” sounds positively dangerous. Forget it immediately. Get a wig if you want to toss straight hair so much and definitely don’t subject yourself to chemical burns. Come on. If that is what’s required, f- them. I wouldn’t do it. Who the heck is calling the shots here?

When Robinson describes a bedroom scene where the woman is wearing an elastic do-rag to protect her afro and she insists that a real man would still get a boner regardless, I laughed all right. But then it occurred to me that is the definition of drop-dead sexy: strong and sexy, when black womanhood doesn’t even need to fling her hair around to get to home base. She commands the stage. I’m impressed. Personally, I’d kill for the simplicity of a close crop and call it quits. But I ain’t no Phoebe Robinson.

Jessica Williams, Phoebe’s “work wife,” writes the introduction to this book. Williams was a writer/correspondent on The Daily Show and now the two perform standup at various locations in Brooklyn and work a podcast (WYNC) called 2 Dope Queens. Robinson had a vision of where she wanted to go and to that end began a blog called Blaria in 2014. When the Robinson and Williams standup routine started to take off, a new piece in the NYT tried to keep track. Robinson also has a talk-show style podcast she started last year called Sooo Many White Guys. She's angling for Oprah's job, and I think she's becoming a worthy successor. She certainly has drive.

If the material is sometimes juvenile, well, juvenile can be funny. There is one thing that may eventually limit the range of the women, though: all their references for jokes relate to TV or movies. When it works, it’s very good indeed, but not everyone is so deep into popular culture, or have looked at it with such seriousness and depth of understanding. It is fascinating to watch Robinson deconstruct an old movie like a college professor does a piece of literature, but then our mind starts thinking…what else can this woman do that would be—less fun, maybe—but more important?

Then I remember what she is doing, desensitizing race relations, telling white folk what bothers black folk, sharing some intimacies and some vulnerabilities, and I realize she is doing exactly what she needs to be doing right now, and she is doing it funny, she is doing it sexy, she is doing it in braids, in long soft curls, in dreads, and in a bust-'em afro. She’s strong, she’s sexy, she’s outspoken, and she’s unstoppable now. I’m a fan.

2 Dope Queens 2016 holiday podcast on YouTube:

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Insane Clown President by Matt Taibbi

Hardcover Expected pub: January 17th 2017 by Spiegel & Grau (ISBN13: 9780399592461)

Matt Taibbi is a helluva writer. Even if you don't agree with his political views, you might kinda wish you did…to see what he sees. He is really funny, and it is inevitable that you will choke out a few guffaws against your will when he goes after someone you fell for, or settled for. Sucker. The only person Taibbi doesn't speak of in sarcastic or cynical tones is Bernie Sanders, who never tried to entertain us so much as educate, inform, and move us.

After the election in November last year, Taibbi wrote a last dispatch in which he heralds some of the thoughts he exercises in this book. Called President Trump: How America Got it So Wrong this article published in Rolling Stone gives you some idea of who Taibbi is and how he writes, in case he slipped your notice. He no longer works full time for that magazine, but has moved to First Look Media, working with Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, and Laura Poitras. His leaving statement from Rolling Stone is presented here.

Listening to Washington news today, I am getting the burning sensation in my belly again. Trump just had his first news conference (1/11/17) and listening to his incomplete sentences and careless way of speaking started my slow burn. What is he trying to say? Why should we have to have an interpreter? Who should be our interpreter? Breitbart? KellyAnne? My anxiety and frustration will kill me if I have to listen to this straight on. I am afraid I may only be able to view Trump’s presidency through a filter or in the rear view mirror.

Which brings me to Taibbi. Taibbi followed the campaign trail as much as he was able this time round, and filed reports that were meant to dovetail with the illustration work of Victor Juhasz. This book, after the preface in which Taibbi takes a long view, is a collection of his dispatches from the 2016 campaign trail, following a long tradition beginning with Hunter S. Thompson.

In these dispatches, Taibbi makes comment on events as they unfolded, recognizing that the anti-truth candidate might win but still reiterating that he "can’t." It may be too soon for some of you, scarred from that campaign as you are, to even consider laughing at the unbelievable thing we as a country did in electing Trump. But some say to jump right back on the saddle, and Taibbi is a great trail leader.

Taibbi admits, despite his writing eight years earlier a book about a post-truth society based on fake conspiracies and exemplified by Fox News called The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics, and Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire, that even he did not foresee that a charlatan like Trump could hijack an electorate that voted twice! for Barack Obama, and which had led movements in racial parity and same sex rights. Therefore, while he is critiquing the “childlike” crowds that throng to Trump rallies, faces turned like believers to the clarion call a of television evangelist, throughout the year preceding the vote Taibbi can’t believe this clown can possibly win.

He is disbelieving but accurate and very, very, funny in describing the absurd Republican debates fielding seventeen candidates for president. Clearly some folks weren’t getting the memos, or, as we had surmised for some time already, were refusing to go along with the Party hierarchy. Well, they reaped what they sowed: confusion.

But what Taibbi does very well indeed is show us how long we have been living with our heads in the sand while small indignities were perpetrated upon us, e.g., Fox News Channel the only news network available on some cheap cable packages when free public television was not; news networks hiring attractive airheads who all ask the same questions and parrot one another until we get less accomplished in an hour of watching than if we’d had the TV off, etc. We were victims but we didn’t rise up.

Taibbi helps, along with giving us a few laughs, to chart the train wreck that was the election and pinpoints moments when the cake-icing edifice melted and started to slide off the steaming heap it was hiding. For me in particular, he makes me wonder how we will manage without news organizations worthy of the effort of reading/listening to them. Traditional newspaper outlets have been under stress for many years now, and their ranks are decimated. TV news, you already know, are terrifying in their ineptness & self-satisfaction. They need to hire armies of journalists to back up their newscasts rather than taking big profits and giving such high salaries. They simply must do a better job informing us (and themselves).

I listened to the audio production of this book, produced by Penguin Random House Audio and read by Rob Shapiro. Shapiro has just the right amount of incredulity and snark in his voice to accentuate the disbelief and horror in Taibbi’s tale of woe.

Below please find a short sample clip of the audiobook:

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen

Hardcover, 224 pages Expected publication: February 7th 2017 by Grove Press ISBN13: 9780802126399

This is such an exciting time in American literature that we can enjoy the gorgeous language and careful craftsmanship of really very fine short stories and novels in English in the American tradition but from traditionally silent participants in our nation’s pageant: immigrants and people of color. These voices began speaking up some time ago, but if you looked at the award lists until recently, people of color weren’t often on them. That has changed, and right now, before cultures become indistinguishable from one another in the wealth churn, the special character and individual voice of different groups is our bounty to reap.

Nguyen just wows me with his capture of the immigrant experience from so many different directions in this collection of stories. Not only is his language clear and expressive and to the point, his stories are rounded and fulfilling. They tell us something, like dispatches from a new world.

A story called “The War Years” is not actually about the war we usually think of. We’re in L.A., in Little Saigon, in a grocery store where we breathe in the smell of dried cuttlefish and star anise in the crowded aisles. Father (Ba), mother (Ma), and Long (do I need to say?), a thirteen-year-old for whom school, even summer school, felt like a vacation, worked at the store every day, even Sundays after Mass.

Ma is the real deal: waking everyone up in the mornings, keeping house, making meals, counting cash. She owns seven pastel outfits, and with makeup and a squirt of scent (gardenia), she is ready to man the cash register. We hear the scratch of her nylons as she rubs one ankle against the other. She knows the margins on every item in the store, even the 50-lb bags of rice in the loft above kitchenware.

Mrs. Hao visits the store regularly to ask for contributions to “fight the Communists,” but Ma thinks that fight is over. She follows Mrs. Hao home one day to confront her and discovers a fight that is all too real.

The story is so richly told, its depths just keep churning up new insights. And yet it is not alone. “The Transplant” introduces us to Arthur Arellano, a man with several overlapping and reflexive problems—problems which influence each other. Despite “transplant” bringing to mind “immigrant,” in this story the word has a more literal meaning.

The characters in all these stories have complex problems, complex attachments, complex lives. In “Someone Else Besides You,” a thirty-three-year-old man lives with his father after his own divorce, but his widower father, despite his own proclivities for mistresses, is constantly urging his son to pursue the former wife. See what I mean? Complex.

One story, “The Americans,” depicts a twenty-six-year-old woman who has been teaching English in Vietnam for two years already, living in a town that also hosts a nonprofit engaged in demining. She invites her parents to visit, to meet her boyfriend, to see her housing, her life. The email inviting them is addressed to Mom and Dad, but James Carver, recently retired as a commercial airline pilot, knows it is mostly meant for her mother, who dreams about Vietnam's “bucolic” countryside. “He knew next to nothing about Vietnam except what it looked like at forty thousand feet.”

Nguyen conveys the silent, withheld anger and confusion that men can often exhibit: an inarticulateness that keeps them angry without them even knowing exactly why. James was so proud when his son graduated from Air Force Academy, but he marks his own decline from that moment: he felt he was growing stupider rather than wiser as he aged. That was just the moment that the torch passed, and it is a new world, not his own. If he could but speak his fears, he’d find he was not alone: the world could still be his, he’d just be sharing it.

His daughter Claire is just like daughters anywhere, thinking they know more than they do, speaking and acting so carelessly, so casually hurtful.
“Although she empathized with vast masses of people she had never met, total strangers who regarded her as a stranger and would kill her without hesitation given the chance, she did not extend any such feeling to him.”
Being a parent is tough stuff. One has to have the hide of a rhinoceros.

The technical skill manifest in this story is breathtaking. We are never explicitly told the man is black, married to a Japanese woman while stationed on Okinawa. Their children have grown up loved by their parents, but confused about their identities and disparaged by their schoolmates. James has endured a lifetime of confusion, including his job flying a bomber jet. Unspoken, unresolved resentment is the minefield.

Nguyen’s stories are feasts of insight, generously shared. We’re lucky folk, to have such a talent writing for us. The Sympathizer, Nguyen’s Pulitzer-winning novel out last year, was a big novel is every sense. He shows us here he can write engaging, enduring short fiction, and his nonfiction, Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, has likewise garnered critical attention. Nguyen is the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He has received residencies, fellowships, honors, awards, and grants from a wide range of admiring and grateful organizations.

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Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Signal Flame by Andrew Krivák

Hardcover, 272 pages January 24th 2017 by Scribner ISBN 1501126377 (ISBN13: 9781501126376)

Krivák takes his own blessed time when telling stories. His novels are quiet, but not especially slow; they are full of drama, generations of crises. It has been five years since the publication of Krivák's quietly spectacular first novel, The Sojourn, which followed the sharpshooter Jozef Vinich during World War I. This book, it turns out, follows Vinich’s family, based now in the hill country of northeastern Pennsylvania, where they run a mill.

War and its opposite, peace, are inescapable twin themes running through Krivák’s work, lacing the generations together. We are introduced to the Irishman silversmith who landed penurious in New York, only to be conscripted into the Union army, fighting at Gettysburg, one of the last men standing. Afterward he built a snug and comfortable house that lasted well, uninhabited, for many years until it again became a happy home.

Jozef’s grandson Sam goes to Vietnam, a corporal, and is missing in action. But Sam had the noticing, or attention, gene that Jozef had exploited in the earlier conflict to keep himself alive: “Just movement like the breeze, except there was no breeze that day.” No one wants to believe Sam is dead. His brother and mother hold the fort at home, missing him, waiting for him to come back one day.

The family history is complicated, threads overlapping and woven into the fabric of that small area where everyone knew everyone else. But Krivák patiently and clearly relates the relevant histories with their attendant tragedies and small successes until those histories are as clear as our own. When, in the final pages, Hannah stands near the corner of her land and finds a smooth-barked beech with the generations of family carved into its side, we know just who is being described. JV + HP, BK + HV, BK + AD, SK + RY, each set of carving clearer in its presence on the tree’s skin. What is so remarkable is how long the family lasted in that place, without moving or shipping anchor, and the violence done to the dreams of each in that place one might think of as sleepy, or otherwise passed by.

The attention to language, to the unhurried unfurling of a long-form mystery, is Krivák’s special skill. We often ask the question, “how did this happen?” but we rarely have the patience to hear the answer. Krivák makes it interesting enough that listening is no chore, recalling as it does the lives of each of us in its moments of kismet and inevitability, love and violence, birth and death.

What I liked best, perhaps, was the genuine kindness even in the confusion among people. There is no triumphalism over the indignities of failure, but neither is there any abnegation of responsibility. These Americans accept responsibility for their forefather’s actions, strive to understand, and be better for any mistakes made. They are capable of change, of understanding, and forgiveness. It is a remarkably uplifting fiction, despite the difficulties each family undergoes.

One of the more delicious descriptions in the book is the occasion of a day trip to West Virginia from northeast Pennsylvania. Despite nothing out of the ordinary happening, we greet this part of the story with the excitement children might feel when told of a trip away. Krivák’s descriptions thrill us with their clarity and accuracy: we know of whom he writes.

Another description that catches a moment perfectly is this description of Sam's brother Bo fishing with the parish priest, whom Bo wanted to ask for advice:
"The split up on the stream, Bo took the faster water up top and fished with a muddler minnow. Father Rovnávaha worked a black ant in a lower pool where brookies were rising to terrestrials. In all this time from house to stream, they had said no more than five words to each other."
They sat streamside on rocks for a coffee break, Bo walking to the edge to pick a mayfly off a stone. They'd been using the wrong flies. Then Bo broached the topic that was troubling him.

There is no sensationalism here. Krivák writes about a time long gone, fifty and more years ago. It is a small, almost private novel, about making a wooden hutch for someone as a Christmas present, and when placed in their home, “looks like it had always been here.” The fiction has something of that inevitable feel, as though it weren’t made-up at all, but memoir, and deeply felt. These are beautifully written and constructed novels, and there is room for more, if Krivák wanted to move into the controversies of a modern-day novel. I read later that these will be a trilogy. Read them in any order, but don't miss them.

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Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

Is there anyone out there who doesn’t think Shonda Rhimes is something special? She has got it all going on, creating TV characters (in a time frame that would cripple most of us) for several shows that reflect the best and worst of ourselves. She is a genuinely interesting personality. So it was something of a shock to discover she is an introvert who would much rather stay home reading and writing in her PJs than get out there and take her place on stage.

But of course Rhimes is an introvert. How else could she find all those voices in her head, both in time and creativity? But the introvert part meant that Rhimes was refusing some “best time of your life” invitations to do things where she would be feted, admired, and all that, but she could also find people to admire. She decided, for one year, to say “yes” to invites that she would ordinarily eschew.

She was in a good position to do it. Though it complicated some aspects of her life, she had the family and financial resources to make up any shortfall. It was fascinating when she discovered her children are extroverts, and nothing like herself. She does that humble-brag thing, where she says something like “three hot-as-fire TV shows, three children, sleeping, eating, working, writing has been kicking my ass lately.” Yeah, girl. I bet. Harumpf.

But Rhimes is no humble-brag. Not very long after that she tells us about her struggles to do things that she isn’t as good at as TV shows and imagination, like living consciously, victoriously, really. Here she is, the most successful woman any of us can imagine, with a fun job with fun people in a fun city, and she is pulling in and shutting down, feeling old, getting fat. Good lord, what does that to us?

It’s like a disease. But I get it. It is easier, sometimes, to live in one’s imagination. I do it, too. Not even writing books, me, just reading them. One can do it in a balanced way, or in an unbalanced way. Rhimes is here to tell you (and you don’t have to listen, but then, well, good luck out there) how it feels to recognize and slowly heal that sickness. It might be a little like, “Hi, my name is Jennie, and I am an introvert,” but again, there are healthy ways to be and unhealthy ways, and most of us know instinctively which is which. When it gets bad enough, you might want a little Shonda to brighten your day. She’s funny, she’s smart, and she’s been there.

We certainly get a look into the way Rhimes speaks, and thinks, if we didn’t already get plenty of that through her characters. (We knew she liked red wine, for instance.) She answers for us things she really shouldn’t have to answer—like deciding not to get married. Maybe it helped her to write that part down, at least so she has some ready answers the next time someone comes to her with what she calls “Big Questions.”

Speaking of which, one of the more fascinating parts of this book for me was her response to “Why is diversity so important?” I would never have thought to ask that question, and that is sort of the way she answers it:
" of the dumbest questions on the face of the earth, right up there with 'Why do people need food and air?' and 'Why should women be feminists?'

…I really hate the word diversity. It suggests something…other. As if it is something…special. Or rare.


As if there is something unusual about telling stories involving women and people of color and LGBTQ characters on TV.

I have a different word: NORMALIZING.

I’m normalizing TV.

I’m making TV look the way the world looks. Women, people of color, LGBTQ people equal WAY more than 50 percent of the population. Which means it ain’t out of the ordinary. I am making the world of television look NORMAL.

…The goal is that everyone should get to turn on the TV and see someone who looks like them and loves like them. And just as important, everyone should turn on the TV and see someone who doesn’t look like them and love like them. Because perhaps then they will learn from them.”
There is only one thing that confuses me about this memoir: is introvert now “bad” and extrovert now “good”? Rhimes spent a year
“trying to be as cocky and immodest and brazen as I can. I’m trying to take up as much space as I need to take up. To not make myself smaller in order to make someone else feel better. I’m allowing myself to shamelessly and comfortably be the loudest voice in the room.”
I guess that is not quite clear to me. So this is the goal? To take up more space, to impose one’s will? I understand being happy in the world. I understand not backing down from who you are. I’m not sure why that has to drown out others. But I’m glad Rhimes feels better at the end of it. As long as she isn’t just making that up for our benefit.

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Monday, January 2, 2017

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Hardcover, 688 pages Published Oct 2nd 2014 by Riverhead Books Orig Title A Brief History of Seven Killings (ISBN13: 9781594486005)

This book is not brief; it has many more than seven killings; it redefines what a novel is. As a reader I was gratified to read in the Acknowledgements that James himself didn’t know this was a novel, either, until someone pointed to possible parallels for the style in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. James drew inspiration from Roberto Bolaño, Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, and Gay Talese among others, and the work is staggering for sheer inventiveness.

The storyline is anything but simple, told from multiple viewpoints, but basically some people killed ‘the Singer’ and nobody knows why. But while we are looking for answers, we get a whole lotta reasons for why people want to be close to the Singer or are jealous of him or are afraid of him. And it is these things that become the story.

I began by listening to the HighBridge audio production of this novel, performed with enormous skill by an exceptional actor ensemble, but soon found I wanted to see the text. James had me in such awe of what he was doing that I wanted to see the overall structure, introduction, dedication, every little thing. It is a game-changing piece of work. It won’t change most novelists work—James is in the master class—he changes how novels function.

And his voice…it is hard to describe the seeing-ness of his voice. It seems almost trite to say he got the woman thing. He got everybody’s thing. James says Nina Burgess was the voice that most clearly expressed what he as an author was thinking, but it was Kim Clarke speaking in February of 1979 (the first voice in a section called Shadow Dancin’) that broke my heart in two.

The violence…James says "violence should be violent"... and he obliges. It is a reflection, hard to believe, but a reflection of how we do not have to live. Set alternately in Jamaica, New York, and Miami, this is what happens, what we have in store with bad judgement and poor leaders. The book is very violent, and the language is both terribly funny and terribly ugly, the emphasis on terrible. It is gut-punching, air-sucking, awe-inspiring terrible. Shocking.

I am not entirely sure the book needed to be so long, but the sheer genius of the characterizations meant we didn’t really care if it was all meant to be there or not. It was a ridiculously over-the-top banquet with lots of extras. It is a little hard to get one’s arms around the novel, what with all the pyrotechnics, but like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity's Rainbow, or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, who the heck cares?

There are references to Syria, Iran, and Saudi Arabia in here when the CIA operatives were speaking, as well as other nefarious activities and dirty tricks by representatives of other countries, but James warns us not to read this work as history. It is fiction on a framework of research into a time that was interesting to James.

In the 2016 Charlie Rose interview James makes the comment that Jamaica’s racism is very different from America’s: “In Jamaica [racism] is endemic. We never faced it, but we didn’t have to, if everyone was bleaching their skin & trying to get their skin whiter and whiter until we’re full free.” That interesting and provocative comment doesn’t entirely explain the differences between the slave legacy in America and colonialist racism in Britain, but gives us something to ponder.

In an interview with Kima Jones and reprinted on her blog, James tells us that the post colonialist mindset and unconscious racism has been picked up by white women:
"I have very little patience for…stories and…movies [that use white characters to legitimize the experience of black characters]. The traditional ‘white guy goes through a three-dimensional experience served by one-dimensional black people.’ Funny enough, the people who are doing it a lot now are white women. I’ve spoken about this, and I’ve never been shy to talk about it. I had a Facebook post where I said, ‘White women, please don’t become the new Orientalist, because we didn’t like it when white men did it.’ This sort of ‘I had my three-dimensional, life-changing experience surrounded by all of these Negroes or all these Asians or all these people from the South Pacific.’ Enough…I didn’t want the existence of my white characters to be validation or justification or proof of the existence of these other, many Jamaicas within Jamaica."
See what I mean? Provocative. Interviews with Marlon James have left me like a deer in the headlights, too stunned to complete my next thought straight away. I am more used to his answers to common questions now, but he can still be utterly surprising and completely absorbing. A few links to some of his interviews, all of which are interesting, are below.

Indie Wire, Dec 24, 2015

GQ Review, Oct 13, 2015

Rolling Stone Review, Jan 6, 2016

Charlie Rose interview, Aug 25, 2016

The Guardian , October 14, 2015

The Telegraph, Oct 13, 2015

Kima Jones Blog, undated.

NYTimes, Sept 21, 2014

Vogue, Oct 28, 2105

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