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


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 gentrification 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 gentrifiers 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.