Tuesday, December 22, 2009

New Yorker Fiction 2009

This year I got to about 50 percent of the fiction in the New Yorker, same as last year. Here were my top ten favorites, in chronological order:

Al Roosten, by George Saunders—a classic Saunders tale of a morally mixed-up fellow

Wiggle Room, by David Foster Wallace—an excerpt from the forthcoming, posthumous Pale King (post)

She's the One, by Tessa Hadley—a young woman in the wake of her brother's suicide (post)

Vast Hell, by Guillermo Martinez—buried secrets in a small Argentinean town

The Slows, by Gail Hareven—a thought-provoking piece of speculative fiction

Good Neighbors, by Jonathan Franzen—the title is ironic (see also)

Idols, by Tim Gautreaux—a darkly humorous homage to Flannery O'Connor (post)

Rat Beach, by William Styron—a soldier awaits his day of reckoning

War Dances, by Sherman Alexie—a funny and beautiful story about a man and his father (post)

Victory Lap, by George Saunders—a surprisingly violent story told from multiple perspectives

Monday, December 21, 2009

A Year in Reading

It's December again, time for another look back at my year in reading.

In my own memory, this year in reading will go down as the year of Cormac McCarthy. Having read
The Road and the Border Trilogy last year, I made a resolution to tackle Blood Meridian, widely considered McCarthy’s greatest work. I was expecting something brutal and difficult but was surprised by the humor of the novel as well as the pace at which I found myself reading, borne along swiftly by the joys of McCarthy’s language. There was plenty of brutality, to be sure, but overall the book was such a great experience that I couldn’t stop reading McCarthy. I picked up Suttree, another masterpiece, McCarthy’s vast episodic wonder of invention and verbal music. From there I went on to more minor parts of his oeuvre: Child of God, No Country for Old Men, The Orchard Keeper, The Stonemason, and The Sunset Limited. In the midst of all this, it was a treat to come across Scott Esposito’s essay about McCarthy’s novels.

I also read a fair amount of nonfiction this year, much of it having to do with the African American experience (fortuitous, perhaps, since I’ve recently been tapped to teach a course next year called African American Voices). I read David Remnick’s great book on Muhammad Ali,
King of the World; Harper Barnes’s gripping account of the 1917 East St. Louis riot, Never Been a Time; and Douglas A. Blackmon’s eye-opening book Slavery By Another Name. Jeffrey Toobin’s A Vast Conspiracy was not about African Americans (unless you take seriously the claim that Bill Clinton was our first black president), but it was a gripping account of the sex scandal that nearly brought Clinton down. Rose George’s The Big Necessity was an interesting set of journalistic pieces about sanitation—what humans around the world do with human waste.

For my big summer book, I read
Anna Karenina and loved it. I’m going to try to read War and Peace this year, as well as The Brothers Karamazov—though preparing for the African American Voices class may put a damper on some of this Russian reading. This past year, though, I also read Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, by Chekhov, who had long been a major gap in my short story reading. Speaking of short stories, I read a couple recently published collections, both of which were excellent: Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout; and Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, by Wells Tower. (The penultimate story in Tower’s book, incidentally, features a major allusion to Judge Holden in Blood Meridian.) I also read Ian Frazier’s Lamentations of the Father, a delightful collection of short humor pieces, one of which is among the funniest things I’ve ever read.

Some assorted novels: I read Kazuo Ishiguro’s
Never Let Me Go and am planning to teach it this coming semester in my Alienated Hero class. I read Far From the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy, whom I’ve found to be a pleasant summer author in the past. It didn’t work out that way with this one, though. I finished up the year with two recent classics, Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude—both epics, of sorts, both set largely in Brooklyn, both featuring comic books and superheroes, and both great reads, deserving of their reputations.

The Basic Novelistic Substance

An interesting passage from an article about E. M. Forster in The New Criterion:

A lifelong artist, Forster nevertheless valued life over art, and he came down firmly on H. G. Wells’s side in his famous debate with Henry James on the point and purpose of the novel. “What repelled him in James,” Kermode writes, “was the lack, as Forster saw it, of solidity and of character, and the preoccupation with what James took to be the art of fiction, with ‘pattern,’ what James would call ‘the doing’—a fanatical attachment to the treatment of the subject rather than to the material Forster regarded as the basic novelistic substance, the rendering of bourgeois life.” “He seems to me our only perfect novelist,” Forster drily remarked of James, “but alas, it isn’t a very enthralling type of perfection.” The particular problems James set himself—such as, with What Maisie Knew, telling a story entirely from one character’s very limited point of view—Forster dismissed as mere technical exercises; if a change in viewpoint enriches a narrative, then why not use it?

That Forster thought War and Peace the world’s greatest novel, and that James thought it a mess, should come as no surprise. The technical self-consciousness that overtook the novel during Forster’s lifetime, the sense in which novels came to be “about” themselves as much as their subjects, did not much interest him, and he could be quite dismissive of contemporaries like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein. (“He was in his seventies when the nouveau roman appeared on the scene,” Kermode says, “so his age would probably have cancelled any obligation to look into it, not that he was likely to have felt one.”) He deplored the modernist preoccupation with formalistic concerns over actual subject matter: “So marriage,” he complained, “love, friendship, family feuds, social nuances, lawsuits about property, illegitimate children, failures on the stock exchange—all the products of liberalism, in fact, all essentially the subject matter of Dickens, Trollope, Jane Austen, Arnold Bennett—don’t serve the modern novelist so well. He doesn’t even find death very useful.”

Saturday, December 19, 2009

An Homage to the Darkness

From Gerald Early's review, in the current issue of Belles Lettres, of a new book about Sugar Ray Robinson:

Professional boxers, like all high-performance athletes, are, indeed, rare people. In fact, even among athletes, boxers exhibit a rare mentality: theirs is the only sport where the object is to try to so severely hurt your opponent that he cannot or will not continue the contest. Better still if the boxer can knock out his opponent, render him unconscious, give him a temporary brain trauma.... It takes a rare mentality to want to to do that to someone else and a rare mentality to endure the possibility of experiencing it oneself. It goes without saying that boxing is a violent sport. That is a trite observation. Boxing is something more profound than that. It is a shockingly persistent will to violence, an homage to the darkness that drives us as human beings, done up as a cultural ritual.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

St. Louis and the Cult of Destruction

Over at Dotage, Matt Mourning has a fiery manifesto about St. Louis and historic preservation. I like this passage in particular, in which Mourning, who's moving to Baltimore soon, contrasts that city's intact (if largely abandoned) urban landscape to the carved-up built environment of St. Louis:

The depression took me upon seeing whole blocks of these rows boarded, vacant. No cars, no trees, no pedestrians lining the streets. Just walls of row houses sitting vacant. I could “hear” the eerie silence even behind the computer screen, hundreds and hundreds of miles away. I got to thinking: how has Baltimore not torn out more of these rows and created park space or built new housing or just left them fallow, waiting for a time when investment would bring something new? Do whole abandoned blocks not cause issues with surrounding occupied blocks? Do they not pull the image of the city down? This, mind you, was my gut reaction, even as an avowed preservationist. Of course, I was happy to see them remain—thus the hope that later kicked in—but even I was wondering how they could have been spared the wrecking ball.

Then I remembered that I’m a St. Louisan; an automatic member of the cult of destruction.

My leaders have, time and time again, supported the removal of a sturdy built environment and its replacement with something much less, something much worse. Often the replacement is meant to serve the purpose of moving or storing automobiles. This is the city’s greatest power because it is the simplest task at its disposal. Vacant buildings and lots provide convenient opportunities for combining narrow urban lots to form parking lots and garages. A 1920s-era bond issue already widened most roads to an extent likely even then excessive; certainly this was so by the time the region’s vast interstate network was introduced. So a declined city that wants to better move automobiles through itself need only maintain its roads and ensure every new development has ample parking.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Whiteyball


In the St. Louis American, a couple writers reflect on the significance of Whitey Herzog's Hall of Fame-worthy managerial career, including his development of African American players.

Mike Claiborne:

One thing Herzog may not be recognized for in St. Louis but that should not be forgotten is the night in 1989 when he started nine players of color, with names like Smith, Coleman, McGee, Pendleton, Ford, Hill, Booker and Durham (and Pena). It is a far cry from what you see now, when some teams have a hard time finding African Americans to make the roster let alone stock their farm team. For Whitey it was about giving his team the best chance to win. Granted, some of these men were players who would come off the bench, but when the injury bug would bite Herzog had no reservations. He was the one manager in St. Louis who could pull it off and there would be no backlash, because Whitey was golden for all the right reasons.

Earl Austin, Jr.:

It was also a wonderful time for African-American fans who had a chance to cheer on the exploits of great black stars such as Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Vince Coleman, Terry Pendleton, George Hendrick, and Lonnie Smith and so many others during the Herzog era in St. Louis.

I can still remember the days when fans would call the talk shows on KMOX radio complaining that the Cardinals had too many black players on the field, but that mattered little to Whitey, who flooded the field with great African-American stars throughout his tenure in St. Louis.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Misadventures at QT

Last night, my wife was at the QT on Big Bend, just off Highway 44. She heard the workers there talking about how a dead body had been found in the restroom of the QT at Gravois and Nebraska (where we often stop for sodas after picking up Gus's pretzels, incidentally).

Sure enough, in today's Post is a brief story about the incident. It suggests, as did the QT workers last night, that the death was a drug overdose. The QT workers last night had also heard that a child was found (alive) in the restroom as well, but that isn't mentioned in the article.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Traffic

From today's Post-Dispatch:

St. Louis commuters abandoned their side-street detours and secret shortcuts, returning to Highway 40 on Monday in numbers rivaling those before the lengthy rebuilding.

Missouri Department of Transportation officials said they expected displaced motorists to return gradually after the stretch between Interstate 170 and Kingshighway reopened early Monday. They just didn't think the cars would return so soon.

"The thing that probably surprised me was that people came back as quick as they did," said Ed Hassinger, MoDOT's district engineer in St. Louis. "We were thinking probably over the next few days people would start moving back. But it looks like ... they all came back today."

This report reminds me of John Seabrook's 2001 New Yorker article about traffic, which notes that highway construction doesn't necessarily reduce traffic, and can actually have the reverse effect:

No major new highways have been built around New York since the nineteen-seventies, partly because there's no room left, and partly because many people believe that building highways makes congestion worse, because drivers who had previously used mass transit to avoid the traffic begin using the new roads. Even if no new drivers take to the new roads, scientists have shown that increased road capacity alone can increase congestion, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as "Braess's paradox," after a German mathematician named Dietrich Braess. In the twenty-three American cities that added the most new roads per person during the nineteen-nineties, traffic congestion rose by more than seventy per cent.

Monday, December 7, 2009

An Early Version of Facebook

From an interesting review of a new selection of Sofia Tolstoy's journals:

For Leo Tolstoy and his extended household, diaries were an early version of Facebook. Everyone had his or her own page, and most people were fanatical recorders of their own feelings. The great man himself kept voluminous diaries, making entries almost to the day of his death. His doctor, his secretary, his disciples, his children, and – most of all – his wife also kept journals.

I like the way this passage suggests a kind of continuity between the logorrheic journalling of people in the past and the writing that people now do online. The passage suggests that our current era is something other than simply debased and illiterate.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Comic Books and Fascism

From The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, an interesting passage in which a comic book artist reflects on the implications of his work:

Joe Kavalier was not the only early creator of comic books to perceive the mirror-image fascism inherent in his anti-fascist superman—Will Eisner, another Jew cartoonist, quite deliberately dressed his Allied-hero Blackhawks in uniforms modeled on the elegant death's-head garb of the Waffen SS. But Joe was perhaps the first to feel the shame of glorifying, in the name of democracy and freedom, the vengeful brutality of a very strong man. For months he had been assuring himself, and listening to Sammy's assurances, that they were hastening, by their make-believe hammering at Haxoff or Hynkel or Hassler or Hitler, the intervention of the United States into the war in Europe. Now it occurred to Joe to wonder if all they had been doing, all along, was indulging their own worst impulses and assuring the creation of another generation of men who revered only strength and domination.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Adventures at QT (3)

I was filling up our sodas today at QT. Standing next to me, a guy with an empty cup in his hand scanned the ice dispensers, half of which were hung with blue signs.

"Out of order. Out of order," he read.

"I guess your only option today is cubed ice," I said with a grin.

He shook his head. "She's gonna be pissed," he muttered, filling his cup to the top with ice.

As he walked away toward the register, he called back, "I hate a pregnant woman with crushed ice, don't you?"

A Sort of Talismanic Quality

Cormac McCarthy's old typewriter, on which he composed all of his novels, recently sold for $245,500 at auction. The rare-book dealer who handled the auction had this to say.

When I grasped that some of the most complex, almost otherworldly fiction of the postwar era was composed on such a simple, functional, frail-looking machine, it conferred a sort of talismanic quality to Cormac’s typewriter. It’s as if Mount Rushmore was carved with a Swiss Army knife.

I like this comment, although it's actually kind of ridiculous if you think about it: the idea that fiction composed on a computer would necessarily be any more innovative or unusual than fiction composed on a typewriter—or by hand, for that matter. It's actually not at all as if Mount Rushmore were carved with a Swiss Army knife. All those sentences still had to be formed by McCarthy's mind, regardless of how they were transmitted to the page; the invention, composition, arrangement, and revision evident in works like
Blood Meridian and Suttree would no less stunning if the manuscripts had been produced on computer, and no more so if they'd been written with a No. 2 pencil.

***UPDATE*** Over at the Book Bench, Thessaly La Force writes about the same comment, taking issue with the aspersions it seems to cast on the typewriter itself.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Cultural Artifact

I came across this old Letterman clip via Facebook today. It seems to me a rather striking artifact from a bygone age.



What I mean is, the whole conceit of the interview is based around humor that is no longer really acceptable on a show like this. The first gag, for example, is about Murphy and Cavett being gay lovers. From there, the humor quickly shifts to jokes about the idea of a white guy being friends with a black guy.

Deadpan, Cavett says he and Murphy met on the street when both were collecting Coke bottles to return for the nickel deposit. They hit it off, he says, because their backgrounds were so similar. The joke seems to be that Cavett is the ultimate white guy (indeed, Murphy laughs about how blindingly white Cavett's skin is) and thus an unlikely buddy for Murphy.

There are jokes about "Negro talk" and dreadlocks, all seemingly made safe, I guess, by everyone's assurance that Dick Cavett is a sophisticated liberal, quite above any risk of being racist. Eddie Murphy gamely plays along, getting in his own digs at Cavett along the way, though he pointedly doesn't laugh at certain remarks.

Near the end of the interview, Cavett pulls out of his sock a tube of "Darkie Toothpaste," which he says he bought in Bangkok. Murphy takes over at this point, mocking the blatant racism of the toothpaste and suggesting that its sellers should be punched in the face.

I suppose Cavett would say that he brought the toothpaste on the show in order to mock it, too. But the whole logic of the segment strikes me as antiquated and backwards. It's like, "We've got a black man on the show, so we have to make jokes about his blackness and his differentness." And the differences between Cavett and Murphy are cast in familiar, stereotypical ways. Ultimately, the piece emphasizes the gulf between whites and blacks in America.

It's debatable whether that gulf has closed at all in the quarter century or so since this clip aired. But it does seem to me that our culture no longer jokes about race in quite this way.

Friday, November 27, 2009

On the Radio

From The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem's 2003 coming-of-age novel, a brilliant side note about how oldies stations change one's perception of the music of the past:

San Francisco had a Jammin' Oldies station too. All cities did, a tidal turning of my generation's readiness to sentimentalize the chart toppers of its youth. Old divisions had been blurred in favor of the admission that disco hadn't sucked so bad as all that, even the pretense that we'd adored it all along. The Kool & the Gang and Gap Band dance hits we'd struggled against as teens, trying to deny their pulse in our bodies, were now staples of weddings and lunch hours in all the land; the O'Jays and Manhattans and Barry White ballads we'd loathed were now, with well-mixed martinis or a good zinfandel, foundation elements in any reasonably competent seduction. From the evidence of the radio I might have come of age in a race-blind utopia. That on the other end of the dial hip-hop stations thumped away in dire quarantine, a sort of pre-incarceration, no matter.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

A Brain-Dead Minority

Here's an interesting post from George Packer about "Obama's troubles," both real and perceived. This passage is about Obama's opponents:

Over the past eighteen months, I and others (e.g., Sam Tanenhaus) have written that conservatism is dead. I’ve been asked a few times whether I still believe it. Intellectually, absolutely: the August tea parties, the extremist language on the Capitol steps, the Palin self-promotional orgy, even the lockstep voting habits of congressional Republicans, are all symptoms of a debased movement composed of celebrity and bile. But in the past ten months I’ve remembered how powerful a thing it is for conservatives to have a target. Post-Reagan conservatism, with its overwhelming negativity, is back to doing what it does best—without even pretending to have a viable governing agenda. I imagined that in the aftermath of their historic defeat, Republicans would spend months, if not years, engaged in a serious internal debate between reformists and purists. Instead, the party has become more monolithic and shrill than ever. And in our constitutional system, a brain-dead minority party that spouts simple-minded slogans on TV and votes in rigid unison can be a serious obstacle to achieving anything.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Carver's Ex

In this review of a new biography of Raymond Carver, Stephen King relates unpleasant facts about Carver's first marriage:

Maryann Burk met the love of her life — or her nemesis; Carver appears to have been both — in 1955, while working the counter of a Spudnut Shop in Union Gap, Wash. She was 14. When she and Carver married in 1957, she was two months shy of her 17th birthday and pregnant. Before turning 18, she discovered she was pregnant again. For the next quarter-century she supported Ray as a cocktail waitress, a restaurant hostess, an encyclopedia saleswoman and a teacher. Early in the marriage she packed fruit for two weeks in order to buy him his first typewriter.

She was beautiful; he was hulking, possessive and sometimes violent. In Carver’s view, his own infidelities did not excuse hers. After Maryann indulged in “a tipsy flirtation” at a dinner party in 1975 — by which time Carver’s alcoholism had reached the full-blown stage — he hit her upside the head with a wine bottle, severing an artery near her ear and almost killing her....

Ray and Maryann were married for 25 years, and it was during those years that Carver wrote the bulk of his work. His time with the poet Tess Gallagher, the only other significant woman in his life, was less than half that....

Nevertheless, it was Gallagher who reaped the personal benefits of Carver’s sobriety (he took his last drink a year before they fell in love) and the financial ones as well. During the divorce proceedings, Maryann’s lawyer said — this both haunts me and to some degree taints my enjoyment of Carver’s stories — that without a decent court settlement, Maryann Burk Carver’s post-divorce life would be “like a bag of doorknobs that wouldn’t open any doors.”

Maryann’s response was, “Ray says he’ll send money every month, and I believe him.” Carver carried through on that promise, although not without a good deal of grousing. But when he died in 1988, the woman who had provided his financial foundation discovered that she had been cut out of sharing the continuing financial rewards of Carver’s popular short-story collections. Carver’s savings alone totaled almost $215,000 at the time of his death; Maryann got about $10,000.

***UPDATE*** Just discovered that in 2006 Maryann Burk Carver published a memoir about her life with Raymond Carver.

Pun of the Week

The Wicked Queen shows Snow White a killer app.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Thanks, Tricky Dick

From Ariel Levy's fascinating review-essay about the recent history of feminism:

These days, we can only dream about a federal program insuring that women with school-age children have affordable child care. If such a thing seems beyond the realm of possibility, though, that’s another sign of our false-memory syndrome. In the early seventies, we very nearly got it.

In 1971, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Walter Mondale, came up with legislation that would have established both early-education programs and after-school care across the country. Tuition would be on a sliding scale based on a family’s income bracket, and the program would be available to everyone but participation was required of no one. Both houses of Congress passed the bill.

Nobody remembers this, because, later that year, President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act, declaring that it “would commit the vast moral authority of the National Government to the side of communal approaches to child rearing” and undermine “the family-centered approach.” He meant “the traditional-family-centered approach,” which requires women to forsake every ambition apart from motherhood.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

225/365

Today is the one-year anniversary of the creation of Corresponding Fractions. The fraction in the title of this post denotes the number of posts (including this one) I've done here over the past 365 days.

As a way of reviewing the year, I've listed my Favorite Fractions, the posts that seemed most worth saving, on the right margin under the list of labels.

Thanks for all of your responses, the ones posted here, on Facebook, by e-mail, and in person! Here's to another year.

And, as another way of expressing the goal of all this, a reworking of an Arthur Miller dictum (check out the last paragraph of this speech):

Whatever is not [blogged] disappears forever.

McCarthy, Interviewed

Stephen Schenkenberg notes that this otherwise interesting interview with Cormac McCarthy doesn't touch on McCarthy's 1979 novel Suttree. But perhaps we can see an indirect reference to that meandering, eddying work of nearly 500 pages in this somewhat embittered comment:

People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you're going to write something like "The Brothers Karamazov" or "Moby-Dick," go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don't care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.

Like Stephen, I do prefer the luxurious density of high Cormac McCarthy, on display in this stunning consecutive trio: Suttree, Blood Meridian, and All the Pretty Horses. Yet in the next novel, The Crossing, I think McCarthy luxuriates a bit too much; the novel's density becomes leaden.

Perhaps he realized that himself. McCarthy's work has surely gotten tauter in recent years—from the screenplays turned novels Cities of the Plain and No Country for Old Men, to the "novel in dramatic form" The Sunset Limited, to the boiled-down prose of The Road.

The greatest of these, clearly, is The Road. The tautness of that novel is entirely appropriate to the novel's subject, in which nearly all human comforts and tendernesses have been burned away. The father searching for food among the ashes becomes a parallel to McCarthy the writer, inventing a plot in this barren landscape.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Prize Specimens

The art director for Vintage and Anchor Books invited a bunch of folks to design covers for Nabokov books in specimen boxes (the kind that might be used to display butterflies). Above is Stephen Doyle's creation for my favorite Nabokov novel.

I also like this one by Chip Kidd because it evokes the structure of Nabokov's longest (at 600+ pages) novel, whose five sections get progressively shorter.

An Opportunity for the Gentrifiers

This short n+1 piece entitled "Gentrify, Gentrify," interesting if at times annoyingly oracular, ends with a call to action:

With the arrival of the crisis—a crisis of gentriļ¬cation among other things—there is an opening for the development of a coherent, positive vision of city life. In intellectual and activist circles, this vision has already begun to crystallize around a slogan borrowed from Henri Lefebvre: le droit de la ville, or the right to the city. For if our civilization has a future, it lies in the city—the only form of habitation that can sustain a global population that would otherwise overrun the land—and it is a future to which everyone must have a right. This is also the right to produce the city: to be the equal of every urban citizen, equally responsible for and capable of making and sharing urban space. Students at Berkeley once claimed People's Park in the name of this right; today, organizers halt evictions, help squatters to claim foreclosed homes, and lobby for expanded public housing. And yet, truth be told, the right to the city remains a somewhat vague slogan, whose more precise meaning we will also have to build. For the moment, its signal utility is to reclaim urban life for politics.... The gentriļ¬ers now have the opportunity to recognize themselves as what they are—the dominated members of a dominant class—with the power to ally with the displaced.

(Thanks to Steve M. for the link.)

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Conversations of Our Time

This sentence, from Judith Butler's article "Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time," won the Worst Sentence of the Year award in the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest of 1998:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

I came across it here.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Destruction of Urban Character

From a new post by Michael Allen about further deterioration of buildings owned by Paul McKee:

McKee and his consultants talk a lot about preservation, urbanism and sustainability. In no way is willful neglect of once-occupied historic buildings compatible with any of those values. Depletion of historic housing stock destroys urban character, wastes precious and irreplaceable natural resources and robs neighborhoods of affordable housing and small business spaces. We are losing solidly built, easily rehabilitated buildings for the uncertainty of a multi-phased project that places areas of St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou dead last in order of development attention.

Those who want background on Paul McKee and the north side of St. Louis should check out this fine article by Jeannette Cooperman and Jarrett Medlin.

Children in Gaza

The most disturbing detail so far in Lawrence Wright's article about the Gaza Strip and Israel:

There is very little for children to do in Gaza. The Israeli blockade includes a ban on toys, so the only playthings available have been smuggled, at a premium, through tunnels from Egypt. Islamists have shut down all the movie theatres. Music is rare, except at weddings. Many of Gaza’s sports facilities have been destroyed by Israeli bombings, including the headquarters for the Palestinian Olympic team. Only one television station broadcasts from Gaza, Al Aqsa—a Hamas-backed channel that gained notice last year for a children’s show featuring a Mickey Mouse-like figure who was stabbed to death by an Israeli interrogator. The mouse was replaced by a talking bee, who died after being unable to cross into Egypt for medical treatment. The rabbit who followed the bee passed away in January, after being struck by shrapnel from an Israeli attack.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Swear Words

My colleague Chuck found this while flipping through Understanding Grammar (1954), by Paul Roberts:

As they are most frequently used, swear words fit the definition of the interjection. Many swear words are verbs which have lost their verbal meaning—thus damn, which in common use has lost the meaning "consign to perdition" and is used merely as an expression of anger, pain, disapproval, or whatever. Names of the deity are often used interjectionally as swear words, sometimes in euphemistic disguise: gosh, golly, gee, gee whiz, etc.

In Vulgate there is a strong tendency for certain swear words to lose all power of expressing meaning or emotion either, as a result of overuse. In Army speech, for example, two or three forms recur constantly, sometimes in every sentence through a long discourse. Such words lose even the color of indecency and become mere fillers, a linguistic sawdust.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cassidy on Health Care Reform

In this extensive blog post, New Yorker economics reporter John Cassidy comments on the House Democrats' recently published proposal to reform the American health care system:

Both in terms of the political calculus of the Democratic Party, and in terms of making the United States a more equitable society, expanding health-care coverage now and worrying later about its long-term consequences is an eminently defensible strategy. Putting on my amateur historian’s cap, I might even claim that some subterfuge is historically necessary to get great reforms enacted. But as an economics reporter and commentator, I feel obliged to put on my green eyeshade and count the dollars.

He does indeed put on his green eyeshade, analyzing the long-term budgetary consequences of the proposed reforms, along with these reforms' limitations. But he concludes by essentially agreeing with Paul Krugman's assertion that an important step in American history is about to be made:

The U.S. government is making a costly and open-ended commitment to help provide health coverage for the vast majority of its citizens. I support this commitment, and I think the federal government’s spending priorities should be altered to make it happen. But let’s not pretend that it isn’t a big deal, or that it will be self-financing, or that it will work out exactly as planned. It won’t.

Many Democratic insiders know all this, or most of it. What is really unfolding, I suspect, is the scenario that many conservatives feared. The Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it (and many other Administrations before that) is creating a new entitlement program, which, once established, will be virtually impossible to rescind. At some point in the future, the fiscal consequences of the reform will have to be dealt with in a more meaningful way, but by then the principle of (near) universal coverage will be well established. Even a twenty-first-century Ronald Reagan will have great difficult overturning it.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Emotional Radioactivity

From Stef Russell's thoughtful post about Gordon Matta-Clark and Pruitt-Igoe, which includes a link to a fascinating Flickr collection of photos of the site:

Driving down Cass, it would be easy to conclude that the site is nothing more than a wily clutch of trash trees hemmed in by bent-up chain-link fencing, but these images tell a different story—the site has been left to itself so long it is now revegetating with plants and animals that might have been here long before the site was developed in the first place. In a way, it reminds me of what has happened to the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, but the radioactivity is emotional.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Language Death

I usually disagree with John McWhorter's politics, but I did enjoy this piece (in World Affairs, where a friend of mine is the managing editor) in which McWhorter argues that maybe it's not such a catastrophe if the world's languages decline in number from 6,000 to 600, or even to one.

From his conclusion:

At the end of the day, language death is, ironically, a symptom of people coming together. Globalization means hitherto isolated peoples migrating and sharing space. For them to do so and still maintain distinct languages across generations happens only amidst unusually tenacious self-isolation—such as that of the Amish—or brutal segregation. (Jews did not speak Yiddish in order to revel in their diversity but because they lived in an apartheid society.) Crucially, it is black Americans, the Americans whose English is most distinct from that of the mainstream, who are the ones most likely to live separately from whites geographically and spiritually.

The alternative, it would seem, is indigenous groups left to live in isolation—complete with the maltreatment of women and lack of access to modern medicine and technology typical of such societies. Few could countenance this as morally justified, and attempts to find some happy medium in such cases are frustrated by the simple fact that such peoples, upon exposure to the West, tend to seek membership in it.

What McWhorter doesn't talk about, though, is the fact that language death is also, historically, associated with conquest and exploitation. As nations dominated indigenous peoples in the lands they colonized, they also sought to wipe out the languages of those peoples. In Ireland, for instance. Or the United States.

Did the Native Americans and the Irish tend to seek membership in the cultures that took over their lands? Was such membership allowed or encouraged? Did the arrival of the British and the Europeans bring the wonders of modern medicine and technology and enlightened gender relations? Are things really so much better today?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Ettlinger's Photos

I enjoyed this Millions piece about Marion Ettlinger's photographs of writers. Edan Lepucki gets the general feel of these photos right:

Her photos are black and white, with an antiquated vibe, as if we’d only recently progressed beyond Daguerreotypes. Her subjects look distinguished, serious, old fashioned.

It's a look that works well for Cormac McCarthy, Raymond Carver, or Alice Munro. But it's all wrong for George Saunders, Sherman Alexie, and Jhumpa Lahiri. It doesn't at all match the feel of their writing.

I guess my problem with Ettlinger, then, is that her style is her style. She remakes the writer in her image, instead of using photography to bring out the essence of the writer and the writer's work.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Frazier's Fanshawe

Having recently read Ian Frazier's collection Lamentations of the Father, I was primed to enjoy this new humor piece, entitled "Fanshawe." It's pretty funny, though it'd be hard to match the hilarity of "Lamentations."

Monday, October 26, 2009

West on Obama

From David Remnick's interesting Talk of the Town piece about Cornel West:

West campaigned for Obama in Iowa, South Carolina, Illinois, and Ohio, but he was dismayed by his speech on race in Philadelphia. West thought the speech was politically “masterful,” but “intellectually, it was pretty thin.” He kept his thoughts to himself, but he was especially annoyed that Obama had said that the Reverend Wright was full of rage, because he was somehow stuck in time, still wrestling with Jim Crow, and that he equated black anger with white resentment. “Have you seen the young brothers and sisters in prison, on the block?” West said. “I don’t mind being an angry black man in terms of having righteous indignation at injustice, given the situation right now in the country. But as a candidate he had to distance himself. . . . There have been excesses of affirmative action and so forth and so on, but Jim Crow de facto is still in place. . . . Who are the major victims of that? The poor—disproportionately black and brown and red. You got to tell the truth, Barack. Don’t trot out this shit with this coded stuff!” And yet, West said, “I intentionally remained relatively silent. It was a very delicate moment.”

Now, a year after the election, West has kept to his promise: he is a Socratic supporter. “I don’t want to downplay the progress, though, because Obama is a black man. It’s just that: first, you’ve got the parents. It’s more Johnny Mathis than Curtis Mayfield, or more Lena Horne than Sarah Vaughan, in terms of phenotype. And, second, you’ve got someone who really is a master at easing the fears and anxieties of white brothers and sisters. That’s part of the basis of his success. And I don’t put that down. We need different kinds of people in the world.”

So far, West finds himself infinitely more impressed by Obama’s mastery of “spectacle” than by his attention to the poor. “In terms of the impact on young people, I think it’s a beautiful thing,” he said of Obama’s election. “But, in the end, even spectacle has to deal with the darkness. That’s where the bluesman comes in. Guy Lombardo can be nice on a certain night, but you’re going to need Duke Ellington and Count Basie.”

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Adventures at QT (2)

On the way home from grocery shopping with the girls, we stopped at QT. As we pulled in, I saw an older guy walking to the door. He was a pretty rough-looking character with a bushy white beard.

"Hey girls, look at this guy's beard," I said.

Lisa shushed me, fearing he could hear.

"It's Santa Claus," she said, laughing, as the door closed behind him.

Inside, I walked back to the soda fountain. One of the workers was re-filling the 32-oz. plastic cups.

"How many of those do you guys go through in a day?" I asked.

"A lot," he said. "Mostly 32-ounce ones."

"I get one every day," I said. "I gotta cut back."

"Me, too," he said. "I get one every time I'm here and every time I work."

Santa Claus was back there, too, filling up a huge 7-Eleven cup with Pepsi. As the worker walked away and I started filling a couple 32-oz. cups with ice, he came up to me with a confidential air.

"I'm gonna show you something, just because," he said. He pointed to the price listing above the soda fountain. "Look—99 cents for a 32-oz. soda. But refills up to 100 ounces are only $1.09."

"That's a lot of soda," I said.

"Yeah, but what I do is get 100 ounces then take it home and put it in bottles. It lasts me three days."

"It stays fresh all that time?"

"Oh yeah."

"Wow."

"What are you laughing about?" Lisa asked as I settled into my seat a few minutes later.

"I was just talking to Santa Claus," I said.

The Fire Down Under

This New Yorker article (subscription required) about the Black Saturday wildfires in Australia, which occurred on February 7 of this year, was amazing.

A couple particularly intense passages:

[Ackerman] rushed back north to Marysville against a stream of traffic coming the other way. By the time he was a few miles from Marysville, he could see a colossal firewall coming toward him from the southwest. It was three hundred feet high. He raced it all the way back to the town, driving on the wrong side of the road to get through blocked intersections and dodging cars that sped toward him in their effort to flee. The fire behind Ackerman emitted a roar like a jet engine and threw embers and fireballs out ahead of him. Huge patches of trees and grass ignited around the car as he drove....

Strange cataclysmic phenomena occur in a huge wildfire. Kevin Tollhurst, a fire ecologist in Melbourne, told me that fires as hot as the one at Marysville—which is thought to have reached a temperature of twenty-two hundred degrees—can produce their own weather. Fires generate convection columns of gas, which may rise as much as forty thousand feet and form pyrocumulus clouds. The clouds can create lightning, which may then start more fires downwind of the original fire. The sound of the gas—like a twig popping in a fireplace, but exponentially louder—creates a wildfire's distinctive roar. The Marysville fire was so hot that gas flared out laterally, acting as a wick, along which the fire caught quickly, crossing the ground in sudden, unpredictable pulses. In the face of such a fire, it is possible to be looking at a front more than a thousand feet away and then, in an instant, to be surrounded by flames. Firefighters described the Black Saturday firestorm as "alive," and said that its behavior was completely unprecedented. In some areas it was apparently cyclonic, coming at them from all sides, burning up a road in one direction and then, minutes later, burning in the opposite direction. Tollhurst told the royal commision that the energy from all the fires that day was the equivalent of fifteen hundred Hiroshimas.

Here you can watch some video of the fires.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fox Park

This post is inspired by the St. Louis blogs I’ve been reading lately, and by my desire to take some photos of things that I see on bike rides around South St. Louis.

A year or two ago, my wife and I were with our daughters at Hartford Coffee Company. We met a woman who lived in Fox Park. She said her husband was rehabbing their house and thought the area was “on the way up,” but that currently theirs was the only non-boarded-up house on the block.

I didn’t know where Fox Park was at the time. But recently I came across this cool site that has all kinds of census information about every city neighborhood. I looked up Fox Park, and realized that it’s the area just east of Compton Heights and northeast of Tower Grove East. Its borders are Hwy. 44 on the north, Jefferson on the east, Gravois on the south, and Nebraska on the west.

Today I decided to celebrate finishing some grading by taking a bike ride up to the area. I brought my camera along.

In general, I was pleasanly surprised by the area. The housing stock, as far as I could tell, was in pretty good condition.

I found this line of houses (technically just to the west of Fox Park) quite beautiful.


Fox Park, the neighborhood, takes its name from a small park of the same name. At the time I was riding by, there was some kind of neighborhood picnic going on. It was a big, racially mixed crowd. Very nice to see. In terms of the racial make-up of the neighborhood, it seemed very integrated, with lots of people of all ages, black and white, on the streets, porches, even one guy out front doing work on the ornate old-fashioned doorway of his house. According to the 2000 census, Fox Park was 64% African American, 30% white. I suspect that’s changed in the past nine years.




Fox Park also includes this baseball field, constructed by Cardinals Care in memory of late Cardinal pitcher Daryl Kile. These fields are mostly built in impoverished areas, as far as I can tell. Indeed, according to the 2000 census information, the poverty level in Fox Park was 27%, three percent higher than the citywide poverty level. Again, I’ll be curious to see the new census information in a couple of years.




Here’s a modest but nicely-rehabbed home, for sale. At Ann and Ohio.


A beautiful line of homes on Russell, with cool mansard roofs.


Some new housing up the street that isn’t completely at odds with the rest of the neighborhood. (The 2000 census found that 72% of the Fox Park housing was built in 1939 or earlier.)


A community garden across the street.


One of those urban churches that seems constructed as a bunker against the urban environment outside. On California.


I find this old-fashioned and rather scuzzy-looking garage at Sidney and California charming.


There are some derelict buildings in Fox Park, to be sure. A shame, because some of them are pretty interesting. This one's near Oregon and Magnolia. The bigger one below (front and back) is at California and Magnolia.





St. Francis de Sales Church was once the center of this community. Now it's a gathering place for Catholics who like their Masses in Latin.


Riding through Fox Park, I got the sense that this area could be the next Shaw, the next Tower Grove East. There were signs of past troubles—the Cardinals Care field, the bunkered churches, and streets made into artifical cul-de-sacs to discourage drive-bys and drug traffic. But on this beautiful October day, it felt like a good place, inhabited by a population diverse racially and, it seems, economically.

If the neighborhood's fortunes continue to rise, will it retain its diverse population? Or will the typical patterns of racial succession mean that as more and more white people come into the neighborhood, buying and fixing up the houses, raising the rents, the black residents will gradually be pushed out or simply feel less comfortable living here?

One potentially hopeful sign, long-term, is the type of housing available in Fox Park. According to the 2000 census, 27% of that housing is single-unit; 44% contains two units; and 24% contains 3-4 units. That diversity in housing type would seem to suggest that this area can offer an affordable place to live to people at a variety of income levels. Of course, it all depends on whether or not people are willing to live around those of a different class, as well as a different race.

It's an interesting time to live in the city!