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2016: A year of disrupted reading.

3 Jan

(2016 was a terrible year for me and for our country. A series of professional setbacks jarred my writing, sapped my resolve and left me an inner stew of rancor and resentment. As above, so below. The sinister election cycle and the ghastly result haven’t helped any. I’ve neglected the blog, too, although I have a dozen or so posts in various states of decay. But I did maintain my reading log, and here it is, 2016, with notes and annotations. I also read The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and a smattering of monthly comic books. Around November I stopped keeping track of everything I was reading, and a few books slipped off the list. The most memorable novels I read were probably The People in the Trees and The Painted Bird. Anyway, here’s to a new year.)

 

Trying It Out In America: Literary and Other Performances—Richard Poirer’s essays on writers and writing, focusing on Whitman and Mailer and others, is funny, well-written and intriguing.

 

The Seven Madmen—Roberto Arlt’s astonishing novel of murder, madness and social instability. A down on his luck inventor decides to kidnap an insane friend to help fund an insane man, known as the Astrologer, who wants to destabilize the world to bring back an age of mystery and magic. Sounds funny, but reads as tragedy. Excellent and unforgettable.

 

Crow—Ted Hughes, y’all! His astonishing poems concerning the origin of good and evil, centering on a sometimes sinister creature named Crow, who is part Lucifer, part Pan, part Amerindian totem. Haunting stuff, and a great place to start for poetry neophytes. (A category I will probably remain in the rest of my life.)

 

The Armies of the Night—Norman Mailer inserts himself into this extended piece of new journalism, “history as novel,” as he calls it, and “the novel as history.” It’s a great companion to other books on the sixties, and Mailer’s abilities are on display. But it feels a bit dated. I keep coming back to Mailer (and Burroughs) even though he as often as not disappoints.

 

Exiles Return—Malcolm Cowley’s revisiting of the Lost Generation—their values, their ambitions, their triumphs and failures—is a masterpiece of criticism, belief and biography. I’ve wanted to read this for years.

 

Mapuche—Argentinian crime novel about a detective obsessed with the disappeared. Pretty good, solid stuff, if maybe not quite as strong as it sounds. A transvestite is murdered.

 

The Thirsty Muse—A critical and literary history of Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway and O’Neill through their alcoholism. Pretty damn good stuff.

 

The Hundred Days—Joseph Roth’s novel of Napoleon’s return from exile is interesting, if a major letdown compared to His masterful The Radetsky March.

 

Geniuses Together: American Writers in Paris in the 1920s—A solid history of the Lost Generation and their adventures and travails in Paris. Really enjoyed this one.

 

The Movie Book—I can never read enough overviews, histories, anecdotes and biographies about the movies and the people who make them. Great photographs.

 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—Junot Diaz’s polyglot novel traces a cursed family from the Dominican Republic, back and forth in time. This novel is many things, most of them enjoyable, some of them profound, but the pop cultural references and the occasional light touch barely conceal the anger.

 

Breaking and Entering—Joy Williams’s novel follows a married couple who break into vacation homes in Florida, as a way of adventure and relaxation. Stunning prose; she makes it all look so easy. (She’s kin, writer-wise, to Ellen Gilchrist.)

 

A Little Life—Hanya Yanagihara’s epic tale of trauma and sadism with little moments of kindness is compelling to read, but the engines are mucked with narrative torture-porn. She can write and write well, but the punishing, relentless torment of her abused man-child is . . . hard to understand. Why write a 750-page novel about how grim and shitty life is? Thomas Bernhard does this in 100. Still, unforgettable.

 

Three Hainish Novels—On a recommendation, I tried these novels from Ursela Le Guin. I shouldn’t have. The ideas are fine but the writing isn’t for me. There’s a couple of hours I’ll never get back.

 

The Story of a New Name—Elena Ferrante’s second novel of a sour friendship in the violent, mafia-controlled poor sections of Naples. Lean and superb.

 

Captain America: Loose Nuke—Writer Remender finds his groove with this third arc of his Captain America run. (His first two involved Cap trapped on another earth, with Arnim Zola in control. A great idea, but poorly executed.) Remender uses Nuke, the great cipher of Marvel comics, a stand-in for American foreign malfeasance, weakness and strength, depending on the author.

 

Terrorist—Moving and compelling comic portrait of Gavrilo Princip, the assassin who killed Franz Ferdinand and inadvertently started World War I. Great, haunting art and a firm presentation of the background conflicts in the Balkans. The best book on the subject since Hans Koning’s Death of a Schoolboy.

 

Best of Enemies—Comic history of the first order, about U.S. relations with the Middle East. Insightful and excellent.

 

Terra Obscura: S.M.A.S.H. of Two Worlds—The cover lists Alan Moore as the writer but he isn’t. He’s more of a story consultant, and it shows. Old characters from his late-90s run of Wildstorm comics make their appearances here, but the pacing is off and the story isn’t clear. Would probably unread this if I could.

 

Bacchus: Immortality Isn’t Forever—Eddie Campbell, underground comic artist extraordinaire—kicks off his long-running series of Bacchus in the present-day with moody art and a light, narrative touch. Not for everyone, but intriguing.

 

The White Hotel—A strange companion, of sorts, to Nabakov’s Pale Fire, a novel with poems, surreal catastrophes, and a case file written by Sigmund Freud. Perhaps not as great as its underground reputation—and inferior to Pale Fire, but most novels are—but still a good read. Pretentious weirdness.

 

Love Me Back—Fierce and stunning debut novel, about a troubled waitress and her navigations through an often sinister and traumatic world.

 

A Brief History of Seven Killings—Marlon James won the Man-Booker for this explosive crime novel based on a real-life assassination attempt on Bob Marley. James captures the rough and tumble terrors of Jamaica by utilizing the pidgin English of its people.

 

Solo—Wright Morris, a very fine writer now mostly forgotten, wrote a memoir of his time in Paris before World War II. He was young, hungry and alive, and this is one of the better books about the joys and risks of travel.

 

The Voyeurs—Graphic novel that is hilarious and self-lacerating, an American woman’s journey with her boyfriend to Paris. Similar to Peepshow.

 

An Imaginary Life—David Malouf’s novel of the ancient world follows Ovid and a feral child. Ovid has been banished to the edge of the empire by Augustus. There he tries to civilize a wild child. Short, lyrical, memorable.

 

Between the World and Me—Te-Nahesi Coates’s letter to his son outlines the dangers his son faces in America. It’s a very fine book, more of an extended essay really, that is touching and angry. The sections about his own experiences with police are jaw-dropping.

 

“The Great God Pan”—Arthur Machen’s short story I’ve been meaning to read for almost a decade. Atmospheric and intriguing, yes, but written in the Victorian style that I have less and less patience for as I get older.

 

“The Killers”—Gots to read it as often as you can, Hemingway’s perfect short story about two hitmen waiting to murder a boxer, while Nick Adams is held hostage with a black cook and the owner. So good.

 

The Oxherding Tale—Making my way through Charles Johnson’s oeuvre, and this is a funny—laugh out loud funny—novel about a mixed-race slave child who is educated by a free-thinking weirdo intellectual. Part renunciation of Candide, part picaresque romp.

 

Memorial—poet Alice Oswald invigorates the dead from the Iliad in a haunting and majestic 80-page poem. An absolute stunner.

 

Bacchus, volume one—A phone book, and a rich, strange, diverting, digressive comic book that follows the aging god of wine through essays, history, and gang-land violence. Eddie Campbell is fun, but not easy. For fans of literature and comics, here you go.

 

The Farmer’s Daughter—Jim Harrison’s latest novellas, and there quite good. My favorite is The Games of Night, a werewolf story in typical Harrison fashion, as a metaphor for sex and fishing and hunting and meat-eating.

 

The Long Home—the great William Gay’s first novel, and it’s a great and ghastly southern gothic, with loads of humor thrown in. Gay is a master of funny, deep south dialogue.

My vote for the most disturbing novel of all time.

My vote for the most disturbing novel of all time.

The Painted Bird—Jersy Kosinski’s World War II novel follows a lost child wandering through the Polish countryside. Kosinski paints one horrifying atrocity after another. One of the hardest, meanest, vilest novels I’ve ever read. (And I’ve read 120 Days of Sodom, The Story of the Eye, The Story of O, and My Dark Places.)

 

Avengers: Time Runs Out, vol. 1.—Hickman’s beginning of the end. He uses cosmic dangers to turn the super-intelligent characters—Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Mr. Fantastic, Hulk, Tony Stark, and a handful of others—from heroes into world-destroying monsters. It’s a grim and in its way terrifying feat, but Hickman pulls it off.

 

Avengers: Time Runs Out, vol. 2—The second installment, and it pits an aged Captain America against the Illuminati, the cabal of elite Marvel heroes who are destroying other realities to save the earth. Hickman is my kind of nerd: he uses Starbrand.

 

Uncanny Avengers: Avenge the Earth—Remender is a solid writer, but Acuna is a great artist. The storyline follows Thor’s failure, the destruction of the earth by one of the Celestials. The X-men are shunted away to an alternate timeline, where the children of Kang rule. But Kang has a trick up his sleeve, a way to save the old earth, by erasing everything that’s happened on their new planet. Convoluted, grim, but rewarding. (Not for new fans.)

 

The Getaway—One of the few Jim Thompson novels I haven’t read. It’s a crime caper gone wrong, with a quick double cross after a bank job and a surreal, violent journey into Mexico. Sam Peckinpah made a movie version that was pretty damn good.

 

Joe Sacco: Journalism—A collection of Joe Sacco’s shorter pieces. He’s an excellent journalist, and his work is a great argument for more comics journalism.

 

The Monster Show—David J. Skal’s history of horror movies (and to a lesser extent, horror fiction) shows time and again how atrocities in the real world impacted the presentation of horror tropes. I’ve come across most of it all before, but still a damn good book.

 

Area 51—comic reportage on the government testing site that is shrouded in mystery and, apparently, the air force likes it that way.

 

Winter’s Bone—Woodrell’s very fine crime novel follows a young woman looking for her missing meth-cook of a father, across a wintry Arkansas haunted by violence blood feuds and bloodshed. Great stuff.

 

Robert Altman: Jumping off a Cliff—For research, but worth reading. A careful study of Altman, his methods, his friends and collaborators, his victories and failures.

 

Junkets on a Sad Planet—Tom Clark’s biographical poems about the life of John Keats. I wanted to like it more than I did.

 

Palefire—diverting graphic novel about a young woman’s night at a party and her crush on an angry dude. Not bad, but . . .

 

Watermelon Wine—research, but excellent. Frye Gaillard wrote this in the 1970s, about the country music scene in Nashville, and how big money invaded the angry, hillbilly and mountain music.

 

Winners Got Scars, Too—I’ve owned this book for 15 years, was never sure what it was about, and never read it. Until now. It’s the story of Johnny Cash, zipping back and forth in time. Pretty damn good, if a bit straight-forward.

 

The Patrick Melrose Novels: Bad News—I read the first of these a few years ago. It’s brilliant, funny, devastating, about young Patrick Melrose and his horrid, rich family. I was so upset by the first book I put it down. Now I’ve picked it back up. Acerbic doesn’t begin to describe the rancor and rage hiding beneath the cleverness and wit.

 

West of Everything—Brilliant examination of western films and novels by Jane Tompkins. Picked this up at random, and enjoyed every minute of it: personal, academic, historical, a spicy and pungent book.

Pollock writes with a pulpy love of trash and excess.

Pollock writes with a pulpy love of trash and excess.

The Devil all the Time—Donald Ray Pollack’s first story collection, Knockemstiff, knocked me on my ass. This, his first novel, is similarly strong, grotesque, masculine. A very fine writer who shoves the reader into the gutter.

 

Patience—Daniel Clowes time travel fantasia is beautiful, cruel and fascinating. One of his better books, which is saying a lot. I can’t stop thinking about it.

 

The Trial—Mairowit’z graphic adaptation of Kafka’s best book. His notes are excellent, and informative.

 

Eat this document—Dana Spiotta’s subtle story of two ex-radicals living new lives after an act of terrorism twenty years prior. Spiotta is a strong writer, and does great work comparing the radicalism of the 1960s with the weird rebellion of the early 1990s.

 

Lovecraft Country—Matt Ruff riffs on America’s racism, pulp fiction from the 1930s, and the contemporary horror literature scene. Reminded me of Victor LaVelle’s Big Machine.

 

Animal Man, vols. 1-3—Grant Morrison’s self-reflective run on Animal Man remains not only one of his greatest comics, but also one of the best interrogations of morality, fate and responsibility in fiction. It’s getting better all the time.

 

Warning Shadows—Gary Giddins essays on film are chewy and delightful, intriguing and fun to read. I loved this book.

 

Where All Light Tends to Go—A southern noir, or Appalachian noir, that’s pretty good stuff. An eighteen year old man-boy works for his meth-kingpin father. Then it all goes to shit.

 

The Sellout—A dense, complex and funny as fuck novel about a black man in contemporary Los Angeles who ends up owning a slave. References galore, and a brisk pace that doesn’t hide the seething anger at all. Went on to win the Man-Booker.

 

Country: The Crazy roots of Rock n Roll—Nick Tosches being Nick Tosches. A rumination on and rooting around in early rockabilly and country music stars, stitched together with first-class research and Tosches demon-dog sensibility.

 

The History of Rock ’N’ Roll in Ten Songs—I’ve been on a kick lately, reading books on music and musicians. I enjoy Greil Marcus’s writing as much as anyone’s, even if I don’t always agree or even quite understand. He has a strange lyricism, a chewy way with words, that grips me. Here he roots around in the lesser known songs that often resulted in big hits.

 

Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh—An astonishing biography of Tennessee Williams, one of the best I’ve ever read, sexy, erotic, heart-breaking. A must-read for everyone interested in theatre, fiction or wild lives on the periphery.
Killing Yourself To Live—wunderkind Chuck Klosterman’s personal journey visiting the sites where rock stars died, only it’s really an odyssey through his fuckups, relationships, tastes.

 

Beatlebone—Kevin Barry’s follow-up to his acclaimed City of Bohane follows John Lennon over a four-day crack up, as he tries to visit his own personal island. An astonishing marvel of a novel.

 

The People in the Trees—Hanya Yanihagarah’s first novel is a compelling, sinister experience. A Nobel-prize-winning anthropologist is accused of sexually molesting his adopted children. His defense—and the novel­—is his life story, layered with intimations of psychopathic impulses and a bizarre disaffection for fellow human beings. Excellent stuff.

 

The Searchers: The Making of An American Legend—the story behind the story, with the captive narratives of the 1830s and 1840s, on up to John Ford’s drunken misbehavior on the set. A good, solid book.

 

The Fifth Beatle—graphic biography on Brian Epstein, with beautiful art, if a bit sloppy storytelling.

 

In a Lonely Place—Dorothy Hughes’s absolutely smashing crime novel from the 1940s—and a damn good film from Nicholas Ray ten or so years later—follows Dixon Steele, a psychopath and murderer, as he meanders through Los Angeles in the post-war years. What makes it so good, besides the spare and clean writing, is Hughes places the reader’s sympathy with Steele, showing is repulsive, but identifiable, self-rationalization and self-pity.

 

A Manuel for Cleaning Women—Lucia Berlin’s autobiographical stories are straight-forward, brilliantly written, heart-breaking and wonderful.

 

Paper Girls—Brian Vaughan’s newest science fiction comic, and it’s a fun ride. Papergirls, who delivery newspapers, run afoul of a war between time traveling factions in the suburbs of the 1980s. Great fun.

 

Showman—Had this book for a long time. Film critic and historian David Thomson covers the life and films of David Selznick, the brilliant, contradictory, self-sabotaging movie producer who made Rebecca and Gone with the Wind, among other films.

 

The Expendable Man—Dorothy Hughes’s mid-century crime masterpiece, a tour into the dark corridors of American justice, where a black man is accused of murdering a white woman.

 

Father of Lies—A very disturbing novel by Brian Evenson, his first, about a pastor in a church who is hurting his parishioners, but he doesn’t see it that way. Reminiscent of Jim Thomson, in a good way.

 

The Bad and the Beautiful—An interesting overview of 1950s movie culture, with the gossip rags as the narrative through-point for the book. Douglous Sirk, Charles Loughton, Burt Lancaster, Kim Novak—an intriguing book, if perhaps not quite the overview of the decade’s movies that it seems.

 

I Lost it at the Movies—Pauline Kael’s best book? Probably. A collection film reviews and essays, including her devastating, and hilarious, take-down of La Notte, La Dolce Vita, and Last Year at Marienbad.

 

The Dick Gibson Show—Stanley Elkin’s superb, and very strange, story of a man’s love affair with radio, and the pitch and timbre of people’s voices, including his own. Similar to Pynchon, although with more syntactic control.

 

The Great Movies III—Roger Ebert’s astonishing last collection of film essays, every bit as good as part II, and a very fine piece of writing. I loved it.

 

Negative Space: Manny Farber at the Movies—Hard to describe, as it hasn’t dated well, but a precursor to most of the great American movie critics.

 

Post Office—Charles Bukowski’s first novel, a very funny, bitter exploration of a working man’s life, and how he hates his job. A great place to start with Bukowski.

 

Women—Bukowski’s pornographic novel about his relationships with different women, when he is in his fifties and beginning to build a reputation as a poet.

 

The Trip To Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking—Olivia Laing’s excellent history cum travelogue of the hard drinking of a handful of great writers, including Tennessee Williams and John Cheever. Unforgettable; Laing is a masterful storyteller in her own right.

 

The Paper Menagerie—Fantastical short stories from Ken Liu. Read most of them, and like a lot of fantasy writers nowadays, he is a controlled and talented stylist.
The Reivers—Faulkner’s last novel, a picaresque journey involving a stolen car and horse racing. Pretty good, pretty funny, a meandering little thing.

 

Intruders in the Dust—Two-thirds a good novel, one-third a didactic piece of butt. A black man is arrested for the murder of a white man, and a white teenager—who loathes the African American man because he once did the white boy a favor—who tries to prove his innocence.

 

Sanctuary—Faulkner’s gothic potboiler, one that he was embarrassed of and tried to rewrite. The result is odd; it feels trashy, but it’s written in an often dense and opaque style. Not sure what to make of it, really.

 

The Looming Tower—Should have read this years ago. Lawrence Wright’s epic reporting on the formation of terrorist groups in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and how these often educated men became involved in a foreign war in Afghanistan, and how their hatred of the Soviet Union turned toward the U.S.

 

The Hero’s Journey—Transcriptions of interviews with Joseph Campbell. His erudition, and his eccentric interpretations, are legendary, and rightly so.

 

“The Swimmer”—One of John Cheever’s most haunting short stories, which is saying a lot. A middle-aged man decides to swim home through the backyard pools of his neighbors. It sounds silly or droll or dumb, but it is none of these. It’s magnificent.

 

Storm of Steel—Picked it back up in October—it’s amazing. Junger’s memoir of being a German soldier in World War I might be the best book about that war I’ve read.

 

Barbarian Days—William Finnegan’s astonishing memoir of a life consumed by surfing. The writing is jaw dropping.

 

Mississippi, 1964—Dispatches on the civil rights movement from here and there. An interesting and diverting piece of writing, with some great anecdotes.

 

Innocents and Others—Dana Spiotta’s fractured novel about artists, filmmaking, success and purity is a very fine, very thoughtful piece of work. She’s always good.

 

The Flamethrowers—Rachel Kushner’s novel about art, artists, motorcycles, business and Italy is intriguing and worth reading.

 

<Trump won the electoral college around here; my reading life, along with every thing else, was disrupted; I read four or five books here but can’t quite remember what they were. I think I read two other Brian Evenson novels, but that might have been last year>

 

It Can’t Happen Here—Sinclair Lewis’s late novel, not a good novel at all, but chilling, about an American dictatorial takeover by a tough-talking non-politician.

 

The Plot Against America—Philip Roth’s very fine counter-factual novel, where Charles Lindbergh defeats Roosevelt on an anti-war, anti-Jewish platform. A very fine, very disturbing novel about how quickly American politics can go wrong.

 

The Death of Jim Loney—James Welch’s near-perfect slim novel about an American Indian’s last days. He is deranged by the past, and alienated by the present, meandering towards a bitter end. Excellent.

 

Dead Man’s Float—Jim Harrison’s last collection of poetry is beautiful and soothing, like swimming in a cool creek on a hot summer day. His same obsessions—horses, fishing, sex and food—are infused with an end of life acceptance of death and suffering.

Pre-strike notes: A lout and a dunce walk into a strike . . .

1 Apr
  1. The Lout.

Well, here in Chicago we have a one-day strike tomorrow. People are nervous, edgy. It’s been four years since the last strike. I usually avoid writing about politics—there are many writers who do this well, including The Reader’s Ben Joravsky, who kicks Rahm’s ass every week—but I feel compelled to enter the fray. Let me say up front that the teachers’ union, of which I’m a part of, has no choice in the strike. We’ve been forced into it.

Here are the issues at play.

Our glorious mayor, Rahm Emanuel, has mishandled Chicago’s public schools. Mangled is a better word. I’ve outlined Rahm’s shortcomings before, in a letter I wrote to Senator Clinton, which changed her beliefs on money, power and Chicago’s mayor. That’s a joke. But I’ll highlight just a couple of things outside of public education, because by any standard, Rahm has been an absolute nightmare for Chicago.

  1. The murder rate is up, and belief in the police is down. Our mayor has a very peculiar approach to crime. Reduce police presence in high crime areas, and focus on moneyed neighborhoods and downtown. The result? An astonishing murder rate. I recognize that leadership requires at times a murky moral calculus, but Rahm seems to approach his office with no morality at all. He prances around like a minor potentate, seemingly unaware of how angry people are with him.
  2. Our credit rating is lower thanks to his policies. His ideas on raising tax revenue include giving land public away, depriving Chicago citizens of the land itself and any future tax revenues the land could have brought in.

Rahm isn’t a Democrat. Democrats don’t pummel union workers and farm out pieces of the public sector to private companies. Democrats believe in providing a social safety net, offering a helping hand to struggling people. And Democrats believe in public education, but I’m getting ahead of myself. They also don’t swill wine with millionaires then lie about it. Rahm isn’t a Republican either. Republicans, at least how I define them, believe in infrastructure spending, building projects.

So what is Rahm? He’s a mad-dog political operative. He believes in power and punishment. He’s a post-modern hybrid of mid-90s politics and a sinister misreading of Foucoult. He doesn’t believe in communities or neighborhoods or culture or, well, anything that isn’t related to political power. But he doesn’t even believe in political power, at least not in service to anything progressive or useful. (Rick Perlstein, one of the great historians, rocks him here.)

He believes in banks. He believes in money. He believes in tangible power. To Rahm, social ills are abstractions. He doesn’t care about poor people; they don’t bring in political donations. He doesn’t care about the mentally ill; they don’t make for strong headlines.

Rahm is not a futurist, either. He is ensconced in an early ’90s concept of the Democrats and of American politics. He is an intractable believer in the status quo. He’s a mean, close-minded lout. And if you’re still wanting for reasons to despise him, here’s another: it was Rahm, as President Obama’s chief of staff, who scuttled the environmental program Obama promised on the campaign trail. So no movement on climate change for almost eight years. Think on that.

We went on strike four years ago. Most of the demands swung the teachers way, but Rahm then closed a shocking 50 public schools. And 50 is a very telling number. Why not 48? Why not 52? Surely the math could have been nudged either way. But the number 50 is scary and strong. It sends a message. He was punishing us for defying him. The city netted very little money, if any.

In many areas of the city, the public school is the only functioning entity, as well as the only example of the city or state doing anything for the residents. Go drive around the toughest neighborhoods. You’ll find potholes, burned out lots, pistol casings and yards of broken glass. The schools, even struggling ones, provided structure, stability and jobs.

Now many of them are gone. Is the city better? Are the residents of those neighborhoods flourishing now that their community schools are closed?

2. The Dunce.

I haven’t even mentioned Rauner, that big-hearted hero of the people, humbly serving as our governor. (That’s a joke.) Rauner is the anti-Mr. Deeds, a Frank Capra villain reincarnated as an expectorating vulture capitalist. Rauner is a millionaire autocrat, choking everything in the state until he gets his way. His model is Scott Walker, the great dismantler. Scott Walker, if you haven’t heard, has strip-mined Wisconsin, costing it jobs and infrastructure projects while ruining the reputation of a great state. Rauner couldn’t have picked a more apt model.

For he is attempting to do the same thing right here. Nine months into his glorious reign, we still don’t have a state budget. Like a petulant child in a pique of anger, Rauner says no to everything that isn’t exactly what he wants. So he refuses to pass any budget that isn’t precisely to his liking. He insists on a “turn-around” agenda that includes a dilution of, you guessed it, unions and a slashing of all manner of city and state programs. He’s a vicious, one-note dunce, a broken record who, now in office, refuses to govern.

Rauner’s obscene intransigence isn’t just (bad) political theatre or posturing brinksmanship. He’s hurting people. Layoffs, unpaid furlough days, reduced services for the mentally ill. And it’s all out of dedication to an extreme anti-government ideology, a hodge-podge of trickledown economics and Ayn Rand-influenced libertarianism. Rauner wants to undo a century of progress in a civil liberties and legal protections, as well as collective employee bargaining.

Doesn’t the state have the responsibility to pay its people? Doesn’t the state have a responsibility to honor its contracts? Doesn’t the state have the responsibility to keep its citizens alive?

Rauner has pushed the state’s higher education into the toilet, too. His “vision” is to starve higher education by removing state funding. College students with resources can, in theory, go to private universities. But students who rely on grants, state scholarships, and the lower tuition cost of state schools? They’re screwed.

And there it is again, that pattern. Rich, you’re good. Poor, go suck an apple.

He’s one person, but due to the flaw of democracy, he is single-handedly wrecking Illinois. Even other state Republican lawmakers are backing away from his stance. But here’s the open secret: Rauner wants the state to suffocate. He is relishing his power over the process. He is happy mental clinics are reducing hours and city colleges are closing. He’s rejected every stop-gap bill or measure, including a last-minute attempt to save the state grants to college students that were already awarded.

That’s dirty pool. And it’s in service to a handful of (from where I’m sitting) undemocratic reforms. He wants to disenfranchise unions, cut city and state services, gut pensions, disembowel public education, defund all the programs that actually help people, and then smile while surveying the heap of ashes.

3. Lout + Dunce = Strike.

So. Circling back to our one-day strike.

We have a filthy rich asshole for a mayor, and a stinking rich shithead for a governor. (If ye judge my language too harsh, remember Rahm’s words for Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teacher’s Union: “Fuck you!”) Let’s not forget that Rahm hasn’t fared too well in the appointee department. Barbara Byrd-Bennett pled guilty to kickback charges. Her predecessor, Brizzard? Fired after a year. And his police superintendent, McCarthy? Gone. Some mornings I’m sure he looks around and wonders, “Am I the last shithead standing?” (The answer, dear mayor, is no, you are not.)

All the public services can’t seem to find two pennies to rub together, yet Rahm and his appointees want to dictate terms to us. We agreed to a seven perfect pay cut, but asked for other (minor) concessions. Rahm, through his cronies, said no. In fact, the only contract CPS put forward was contingent on over 1500 current CPS teachers retiring. (If the number wasn’t met, the contract would be invalidated.)

So, no contract, and we’ve worked without one all school year. But CPS has reneged on contracts before. We were contractually guaranteed a four percent raise a few years ago and CPS declined to pay it. We’re expected to be long-suffering martyrs to some higher cause. But our bosses operate with a different set of ethics. They lie. We don’t.

Unequal funding? Yes. CPS schools are wildly unequal. Some schools have multiple computer labs, dance classes, futuristic playgrounds and sports teams. Others have abandoned parking lots, textbooks with broken binding, and obsolete computer labs with no computer teacher.

An entrenched opposition and inflammatory rhetoric? You betcha. Listen to people opposed to the Union’s (meager) demands. They will either begin with the insults (“You are overpaid to work six hours a day and have summers off,” an actual quote), or misrepresent the issues (“Tenured teachers can’t get fired,” and yes, they can, and it actually doesn’t take that much to do so). And Rauner? He maintains that non-union charter schools are the answer, that CPS should declare bankruptcy so he can lord it over the stupid teachers and lower their pay, etcetera. He has declared himself our enemy.

So we’re left with few options, and removing our labor to show the ruling class how valuable it really is, this is the only remaining course. I say this all the time, that the values of the teachers’ union—reasonable class sizes, reasonable job security, decent middle class wages, a curriculum that is rich in the arts and so on, and equal funding for every school—these are good for the students, too. In fact, I can’t think of anything that benefits teachers that doesn’t also benefit the students.

Remember, unlike our humble governor and friendly mayor, we chose to work with Chicago’s children. We want the jobs we have.

I’m paraphrasing, but no one just gives power away. And, in a democracy, you’re either fighting for something or losing everything. Come join us. Let’s fight for something before we lose it all.

 

An open letter to Secretary Clinton. (Please don’t support Rahm Emanuel.)

10 Dec

Dear Secretary Clinton,

I am a public school librarian in Chicago and a former libertarian—raised into it—who ten years ago saw the light and realized that everything I believed was either wrong, misguided or predicated on outright lies.

I think you need to have a similar epiphany on the mayor of my adopted city, Rahm Emanuel. And I’m going to try and make you see the light.

He is a snake. A wolf. A carnivore. And he has, in his tenure in office, allied himself with the moneyed, the influential, the privatizing and the despicable, all at the expense of working Chicago people. Need proof? Look no further than the closure of 50 public schools in a single stroke of the pen—that’s 50 public schools in poor or struggling neighborhoods, all populated by people of color—and the subsequent firing of some 2000 teachers, aides, clerks and ancillary staff.

Fifty. Public. Schools. Gone in a flash.

The shootings of (often young) black males by the police in Chicago is nothing new. Neither is torture, graft, corruption, intimidation and blackmail. But a clear link between the malfeasance of our law enforcement higher-ups and the mayor himself? This is new. I won’t go into the evidence here—you just have to follow the known sequence of events to see that Rahm suppressed evidence so he could get re-elected—and I know the old canard that Chicago politics are always corrupt. But to support a mayor who has proven to be opposed to public sector unions, public education and also mangling an already damaged economy?

I don’t see it.

I know running for national political office is a byzantine and complicated game. I know there are compromises, backroom deals and (often) amoral metrics run against poll numbers. But Rahm Emanuel is bad for our city. He’s bad for the Democrat’s brand, and he’s just plain bad, period. He’s lowered our city’s credit rating. He’s outsourced public land to private companies to no material benefit to the taxpayer’s of Chicago. (Don’t believe me? Take a gander.) It’s a statistical fact that (okay, in almost every instance) privatizing costs taxpayers more. Yet Rahm keeps pushing it. Forget what Chicago might look like in 20 or even ten years; he wants his money now, goddammit.

Money over the future?

Back to the murders. The homicide rate has increased, partially—at least this is how it was reported to me—due to moving police units away from high-crime areas to focus on the shopping districts downtown.  This was, so it seems, a calculated decision.

Money over people?

His handpicked team of educational experts are now almost all working at other jobs, disgraced nationally, or on the way to prison. The latest misstep by his hand-picked squad was Ms. Byrd-Bennett, herself at the center of an ethics probe to the tune of 20 million dollars diverted out of the public school system into a company where she used to work. No-bid, no oversight, just filthy lucre changing hands.

Money over children?

And now this, the shooting and repression of not one, but as I understand it, two videos of unarmed black males. By the police. And a third video of a mentally ill black man being tased and dragged through the corridors of a Chicago jail; he died later that night. Rahm’s response was vague language over reform, and the firing of his hand-picked top cop. Let me say that again: his response was to fire the man he hired in the first place.

Loyalty (or something else) over the lives of black people?

He’s facing a second teachers’ strike—when before him we hadn’t had a strike here in decades—and his blasé, uncaring (and to me, cruel) attitude towards the working teachers and paraprofessionals is abhorrent.

I have three questions that need answering.

How? Why? What? How can you still believe in him? Why would you still believe in him? What are you doing, in a national presidential election, affirming this man during your campaign?

A higher murder rate. A history of autocratic (and this is a generous description) behavior as mayor. The closure of 50 public schools. A downgraded bond rating. A pattern of privatizing public operations. Failed or failing policies. A dwindling inner circle of the vain and the arrogant and the power-hungry, all sliding into the dustbin of early retirement or the jaws of the justice department. Probes. Questions. Intimations.

You. Backed. This. Man?

Secretary Clinton, our mayor sees poverty, blight, violence, inequality as abstracted numbers on a page. Pieces of a political game called power. He sees the interlocking concerns of running a city—public transportation, utilities, employment, parks, public education and so on—as tradable commodities.

Or put another way: Rahm’s policies hurt people. A lot of people. Working families. Struggling families. Middle class families. Little children. Being harmed by our mayor.

Secretary Clinton, your political chops are not in question. You are, in the realm of politics, bona fide. But your moral and ethical barometers? They are, and have been, in the limelight. And placing support in Rahm isn’t any kind of way to reclaim some of the (previously lost) moral ground.

Please retract your support from our mayor.

Signed,

A voter.

Two new poems from Simone. And a fragment.

23 Nov

(Simone continues to spontaneously create poems. Her features turn a bit strange when she’s doing it, as if she’s channeling the words. A new Yeats? We only have a fragment of the third, as she said this while riding on the bike with Beth. The first isn’t much to speak of, but the second? She’s on to something. Here and here are her earlier poems. One more thing: except for a few cartoons, she hasn’t seen any vampires, yet she seems oddly obsessed with them.)

1.

Vampires and ghosts were all over the world.

Nobody has seen them at all.

I have seen more people than vampires or ghosts.

But nobody has seen vampires and ghosts at all.

I think people would be frightened to see vampires.

2.

Kaboom.

Lightning and thunder came long, long ago.

Snakes came slithering.

It’s the king snake of the king.

tiny, tiny, tiny.

ting, ting, ting.

Bells are ringing in the church.

Sing, sing, sing of dead people coming out of the ground.

3.

Diamonds flickering

from the end of a cave

locked with silver and gold.

wild beasts . . .

Nobody has seen

that you are just made of dirt.

Interlude 4: Three movies, two nights.

20 Nov

(And why the hell not?)

The Guest

Brisk, tight, suburban—this horror-thriller hybrid feels like half a dozen other films, but manages to end up with an identity all its own. Daniel Collins is an American veteran returned home from the wars. He appears on the doorstep of the Peterson family, who have lost their son in Afghanistan. Collins brings a message from their departed, as he was present at the final moments. He’s invited to stay with them, for a while, unsettling 20-year-old Anna and 15-year-old Luke. Dan Stevens—well known as the lumpy Crowley in Downton Abbey—conveys a range of sinister emotions with odd fish eyes and a thousand yard stare. His face turns stony at odd moments, and his performance, the kind that always goes unnoticed—an intriguing turn in a b-movie—is a marvel. Collins begins reshaping the lives of his adopted family, only in the most macabre way possible, through murder and deceit and incarceration. (For the first forty minutes, the movie is a very close analogue to the French film, A Friend Like Harry.)

But Anna’s suspicions lead her to make a single phone call, which alerts a shadowy, private military organization into action. Led by Lance Reddick, a team of shooters converges on the small southern town, and all pandemonium breaks loose. The movie is an astonishing visual spectacle, conveying almost all of its drama and most of its information through images. And excellent synth music.

It has the flow and feel of Halloween—in fact, I kept thinking, this is the movie John Carpenter should have made after They Live!—as well as other movies, like Universal Soldier, The TerminatorDrive. Imagine short stories conceived by Ray Bradbury but rewritten by Denis Johnson, and then adapted to screen by Wes Craven, before being filmed by Nicholas Refn. It’s a glorious, ridiculous pastiche. And when the climax takes place in a high school gymnasium repurposed for a Halloween dance—with a makeshift labyrinth, driving synth-pop score, and intentionally cheesy scares, reminiscent of The Shining and Halloween II—you know you’ve seen something. But. The movie has a political subtext too. The sillier elements underscore the movie’s political point of view, conveying the reality of U.S. military atrocities, intrigue, and outright lies.

A wild blast of neo-eighties action horror. With great music.

A wild blast of neo-eighties action horror. With great music.

The Faults

Three of the actors from The Guest star in The Faults, and there are only five characters. There are other similarities, especially in the excellent visual scheme. Leland Orser, a very fine b-movie actor whose heyday was the cheap scuzzy crime movies of the 1990s, absolutely kills as the lead, a disturbed cult de-programmer and former celebrity named Ansel. He ekes out a living giving small-town speaking engagements while fending off his former manager, who is extorting money from him. The manager’s weapon of choice is Lance Reddick, who has one of the great lines of recent b-movie history: “See, I don’t have a gun? It’s because I don’t need one.” Ansel is hired to deprogram a lost 28-year-old woman by her creepy parents.

The bulk of the film occurs in adjoining hotel rooms, a physical and metaphorical space that turns fuzzy and ontological as the talk sessions reveal psycho-sexual fissures in Ansel’s brain.

We’re in that crepuscular dreamspace where the American drive for success and meaning turns into a nightmare. The parents grow stranger and stranger as the movie progresses, staring off into space or exploding in anger. The victim regresses into a childlike state and then back. Locked doors open. Impossible imaged flicker across the television screen. And it all feels like the unraveling of Ansel’s mind, but it might actually be happening. One of the strongest indie/small movies I’ve seen in some time.

The Faults is ultimately about power, who has it, how to use and how to abuse it. Power isn’t about appearances, or isn’t just about appearances; power is about superior understanding and insight. Weakness is ultimately in the mind. The Guest traffics in similar ideas. Collins is immensely powerful in the physical world, but trapped in an internal sequence that forces him to do things he doesn’t want to do. In the movie it’s a clear metaphor for military training, but just as easily stands in for any ideology. (Hail Stefan Zizek, eh?)

So ideology is easily hidden, but not easily escaped. I love when movies with nothing in common traverse similar internal ground.

FAULTS

You can’t deprogram loneliness or depravity. 

Copland

And why not? It’s written and directed by James Mangold, the skilled, if just a touch square, filmmaker who made the very fine The Immigrant two years ago. The movie follows a large group of characters in a tiny town outside New York City, where the bulk of the residents are city cops. The city is run by a high-ranking police, played by Harvey Keitel, who runs some type of criminal enterprise while wearing a badge. The sheriff is a half-deaf, seemingly simple Sylvester Stallone, who gives a pretty good performance. There’s a crime, a cover-up, and Internal Affairs begins to investigate. It’s a solid crime drama, terse, fun to watch, with some intriguing performances. Ray Liotta is pretty damn good in it, and it’s one of the last movies where Robert De Niro really cuts loose. (He has this great scene where he’s chewing out Stallone in-between taking bites of a sandwich he’s not enjoying; it’s wonderful.) The movie doesn’t turn away from the urban tensions of race/crime/police/money, and there’s plenty of subtext in the casting. Flawed, yes, a bit hokey in the last five minutes, sure, but better than you remember.

The inevitable shootout, but an intriguing movie nonetheless.

The inevitable shootout, but an intriguing movie nonetheless.

 

Interlude 3: Pearl’s soliloquy

17 Nov
Pearl is 3. She’s a rambunctious, mischievous, spirited and often very difficult little person, but full of spitfire and vitality. Beth let both Pearl and Simone watch Mean Girls a while back, and Pearl has taken to these little soliloquies. Here’s the most recent:
I broke up with my boyfriend. he didn’t want to be with me anymore.
My dad said I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend. I said, I’m allowed to like someone! He said no. He grounded me.
My boyfriend called me stupid. He hit me with a stick. I hit him with a stick.
I got in my car, and I smashed him because he hurt me. He died.
Now he likes me again.
My old bitchy, bitchy boyfriend. He’s so bitchy.
I can’t live with myself. I just can’t.
And just this morning, Pearl and Beth were trying to leave the house:
Pearl: I’m going outside, you goddamn bitches!
Beth: Pearl . . .
Pearl: What, I’m just being awesome.

NBAW, 39: 1982’s So Long and See You Tomorrow, by William Maxwell.

31 Aug

1982: So Long, See you Tomorrow

1.

In 1982, William Maxwell won the National Book Award for his elegiac, elegant little novel of memory, heartbreak and loss, So Long, and See You Tomorrow.

Maxwell is a major force in American fiction. He was the fiction editor at The New Yorker for forty years, playing a role in the development and discovery of hundreds of American authors. He also imparted his keen, laconic style.

The New Yorker is so influential in American fiction it often goes unnoticed. In terms of literary fiction, you could argue that The New Yorker is the single most important entity in American letters. This long shadow has consequences, some of them negative. Careers were made. In some cases, the American public was subjected to egoists and blowhards who had no business being published in the first place. And The New Yorker style, which is William Maxwell’s style, came to define good writing, leaving out strong stylists and important artists who didn’t write in that same style. The style is realistic, small-scale, often moody little chamber pieces with the important bits hidden under the surface of the glossy prose. The stories often end with an ambiguous, or heart-breaking, gong of future doom. The prose is crystalline and usually spare, elegant in its way but also tiresome in bulk. Little science fiction or fantasy, little in the way of mystery, and only a handful that delve into the sinister. (The most notable exception to this rule is Shirley Jackson, a psychic vampire who stormed the glittering halls of the literati with her talent and creepy verve.) If there’s a locus of the reading public’s appetite for what has come to be called literary fiction, it is The New Yorker.

(There’s a pretty nifty overview of his career here. And here’s a killer Paris Review interview.)

So William Maxwell, the fiction editor. He shepherded most of the important writers during the post-war era, including John Cheever, Truman Capote, and Eudora Welty among most if not all of the important novelists dur. Along with Maxwell Perkins and Gordon Lish, William Maxwell is probably the most important editor of 20th century American fiction. And that’s not an understatement.

 

2.

To his book.

Maxwell uses a small Illinois farming town as his locale. He tells a simple story refracted through his untrustworthy memories. He’s very, very good. He here is describing an old photo album:

“At the beginning and end of the album, pasted in what must have been blank places, since they run counter to the sequence, are a dozen pictures of my father. Except for the one where he is standing with a string of fish spread out on a rock beside him, he is always in a group of people. He has a golf stick in his hand. Or he is smoking a pipe. Or he is wearing a bathing suit and has one arm around my stepmother’s waist and the other around a woman I don’t recognize. And looking at these faded snapshots I see, the child that survives in me sees with a pang that—I am old enough to be the man’s father, and he has been dead for nearly twenty years, and yet it troubles me that he was happy. Why? In some way his happiness was at that time (and forever after, it would seem) a threat to me. It was not the kind of happiness children are included in, but why should that trouble me now? I do not even begin to understand it.”

A beautiful, heart-breaking and near-perfect passage, encapsulating the themes and power of the book.

maxwell

The story follows a narrator re-visiting and at times re-enacting a crime from his childhood. The crime, as told to us in the first pages, is a murder-suicide. And the son of the culprit was a sometime-friend of the narrator. The narrator re-imagines the events leading up to the crime after seeing the boy, now a man, on the streets of New York, seeing him and then ignoring him. Ashamed, he goes back in his memories. He digs. He burrows.

Maxwell is also tapping into what one author described as the occult superstructure of childhood. He is haunted by his former self, the now-disappeared culture and lifestyle of his pre-teen years. (We all are, aren’t we?)

The novel is structured like an old Hollywood thriller[1]. Shocking event, then present-day, then flashbacks leading up to event. What makes this novel something else, literature of a time and place, is the artful way Maxwell renders the unreliability of his own memories. He isn’t certain, of himself or others. So the novel has this (immensely pleasurable) golden haze around it. Like a halo. And as he investigates his own slanted memories, he comes to startling (or not, depending on how close a reader you are) conclusions.

Through his simple, straight-forward style, Maxwell investigates the lives that populated his childhood self’s world, and the result feels Biblical in scale.

And if this sounds fussy or somehow affected, it isn’t. His style is near-invisible, the kind of writing that you fall into, forgetting that you’re reading at all.

I’m hesitant to say anything else about So Long. It’s easy and intriguing to read, slim, powerful and moving. What else needs to be said?

The award was for best paperback edition. Maxwell beat four other very fine stylists: Shirley Hazzard, Walker Percy, Anne Tyler, and E.L. Doctorow.

[1] A dirty secret: a lot of “high-brow” novels follow this formula. Giovanni’s Room, as just one example.