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Thursday, May 31, 2012

Doing It My Way: Haphazard Lit-Crit

A book review is one thing. Literary criticism is another. I’m guessing, however, that the two might sometimes appear side by side (or end to end) in the pages of, say, The New York Review of Books. At least, that is my surmise after reading two books of criticism of the highest literary quality by two writers whose work I have long loved and admired, Annie Dillard and Alfred Kazin. Serendipity (i.e., dumb luck) led me to reading these two books one almost simultaneously, beginning with Kazin and jumping around from essay to essay, then picking up Dillard and reading it from beginning to end, finally returning to the beginning of the Kazin book and reading every essay I hadn’t yet read. The two go very well together.

Caveat: I have a bookstore, it’s true, but I was never an English major.  In graduate school, studying philosophy, I ran across literary criticism in Philosophy and Literature and then again in Aesthetics, but for me those were painful experiences. I had no taste for dissecting and analyzing poetry (although—or perhaps because--I love it) and no patience for any theory arguing that all artists were aiming at a single goal (although each theory might, I allow, be useful in understanding a certain grouping of artists). The anything-goes postmodern school of criticism I found entertaining, but one must take it as entertainment rather than elucidation: however brilliant the performance of the critic, I will never believe that Nietzsche is a feminist or that Hamlet is a story of a boy and his dog. Son et lumière, and after the fireworks a small pile of ash. That’s what I get from Derrida. 

Kazin and Dillard are different, and I’m no longer in a classroom these days.

We love Alfred Kazin at our house. A Walker in the City is a favorite of mine, while David reads and re-reads the sequel memoir, New York Jew. (It’s on the porch right now, awaiting his after-dinner reading hour.) This explains why I picked up Contemporaries--not for its subject matter but for its author. A collection of over seventy of Kazin’s essays on modern literature (“modern” beginning with Melville), Contemporaries offers a rich buffet, tempting a reader to browse and graze, and in this manner I began, reading first, beginning on page 230, “J. D. Salinger: ‘Everybody’s Favorite,’” and then, from nearer the end of the book, “Writing for Magazines.” In the first essay I marked several passages. Here is one:

A short story which is not handled with necessary concentration and wit is like a play which does not engage its audience; a story does not exist unless it hits the mark with terrific impact. It is a constant projection of meanings at an audience, and it is a performance minutely made up of the only possible language, as a poem is.

In laying out for readers what it is about Salinger’s stories that makes them exciting, Kazin is also reminding writers of their task:

A short story does not offer room enough for the development of character; it can present only character itself—by gesture.

From the broad claim he goes on to note how remarkably well Salinger fulfills the task, catching each small, telling gesture that gives us, at a momentary glance, the character he is letting us observe. And yet, in the end he finds Salinger’s characters too sensitive, the presentation of them too “cute,” the fiction writer’s sympathy too one-sided. Salinger’s beloved, tortured characters, Kazin says, are in love with the idea of themselves, and when their author sets them up as martyrs, the deeper, exploratory possibilities of fiction are excluded.

The piece called “Writing for Magazines” is a celebration of a kind of older writing for periodicals that did not pretend to claim more than brief public attention. I could not help relating Kazin’s thoughts of that older magazine writing to the current phenomenon of blogging. When Kazin quotes Chekov, for example, I hear my blogger friend Kathy from the U.P.:

“I wrote as a bird sings. I’d sit down and write. Without thinking of how to write or about what. My things wrote themselves. I could write at any time I liked. To write a sketch, a story, a skit cost me no labor. I, like a young calf or a colt let out into the freedom of a green and radiant pasture, leaped, cavorted, kicked up my heels....”

Unlike the light-hearted Chekhovian approach (no one, he says, was fact-checking in those days), Kazin is concerned that the magazine writers of his own day—and here I pose the question of a parallel with many (not Kathy!) of today’s bloggers—take themselves far too seriously and have an influence on public opinion disproportionate to their short, ephemeral pieces. Magazine writers, he says, have become “pompous,” take themselves as “pundits,” and they have left joy behind. Chekhov in his time, on the other hand, was allowed to be “easy,” not required to bundle up his themes in a weighty conclusion. A “slice of life,” for Chekhov, was not painstaking analysis but “the moment seized in its actual and seeming significance.”

Here, you see? The moment seized. Character in a gesture. In these words of praise Kazin the critic tells us what he values in short fiction.

Turning back to a 1959 essay, “The Alone Generation,” I was arrested by the first sentence of the second paragraph: “I am tired of reading for compassion instead of pleasure.” Weary of “psychological man,” the lonely protagonist of 20th-century American fiction, the navel-gazing, self-pitying individual interested in nothing so much as his own social situation and emotions, Kazin the critic finds that his weariness extends from the “quivering novels of sensibility by overconscious stylists” to the “deliberately churned-up noels of the Beat Generation.” There are no large social themes, he laments, and no large action, only small, lonely, self-absorbed individuals.

He has another complaint about the fiction of his age, which is that “novels can now be sent off as quickly as they are written and published immediately afterwards.” What would he say today, with packages of self-published pages flying at the public in both physical and virtual form as quickly as the words fly from the mind to the fingertips? “More and more,” he notes, “we judge novels by their emotional authenticity, not by their creative achievement.” Self-absorbed reader, meet self-absorbed writer:

And here I come to another complaint, the increasing slovenliness, carelessness, and plain cowardice of style in fiction today.

Too many writers, he says, rely on language to do the work of characterization. Well, he says much more besides, but I want to get to what he calls “the heart of my complaint,” for it is at that point that I reached for Annie Dillard’s book and found in it a continuation of the conversation Kazin had begun half a century earlier. The heart of Kazin’s complaint is this:

I complain of the dimness, the shadowiness, the flatness, the paltriness, in so many reputable novelists. ... I thought of George Santayana’s complaint that contemporary poets often give the reader the mere suggestion of a poem and expect him to finish the poem for them.

Too many modern novels, in Kazin’s eyes, are “solemnly meaningful in every intention, but without the breath or extension of life,” while he finds the majority of short magazine fiction “only stitchings and joinings and colorings of some original model.” 

So there you have it. Do you think he has too many complaints? The important thing is that this man loved literature and never lost faith in fiction’s capacity to present to all of us (despite the plethora of lonely individuals in novels) a shared world and its possibilities. I was particularly struck by the complaint of “flatness,” in which I couldn’t help hearing a precursive echo (if such a thing can be imagined) of Tom Wolfe’s essay on modern art, The Painted Word (first published as a long magazine piece, subsequently as a book). Is there content, is there a subject, behind “the dimness, the shadowiness, the flatness, the paltriness” of the modern novel? Or does the “flatness” itself intentional? Does it have a literary value?

(I am in deep water, probably over my head. Again my caveat: I have never been an English major!)

This is where I changed horses and picked up Dillard’s book—not, I hasten to say, because I was tired of Kazin but because I had been reading his essays in a desultory fashion, skipping about in the book, and thought I would try another on the same general theme—and right away was struck by the way her beginning picked up the thread of his complaint. You see the serendipity in haphazard, unplanned reading?

Dillard’s first chapter, “Fiction in Bits,” addresses the fracturing of time and space in modernist (her preferred term) narrative collage:

Time no longer courses in a great and widening stream, a stream upon which the narrative consciousness floats, passing fixed landmarks in orderly progression, and growing in wisdom.  Instead time is a flattened [my emphasis added] landscape, a land of unlinked lakes seen by air.

With the arrow of time shattered, different versions of events come from different characters, some of rely entirely on their imaginations rather than interpreting facts, with the result that cause and effect vanish, and reason finds no home. As with time, so with space, “no longer a three-dimensional ‘setting’ it once was, the scene of the action may be “public, random, or temporary,” alien, even extraplanetary. When there is great geographical breadth, with characters appearing all over the globe, there will still generally be “the same narrative distance,” such that the geographical breadth brings with it no emotional depth. Like time, space has been flattened. Events have no meaning, and whatever happens to the novel’s characters appears “jerked, arbitrary, and fundamentally incoherent....”

Dillard in 1982 has described a development in fiction that already seemed to be irritating Kazin in 1959, and she comes right to the salient point before the end of the first chapter of Living by Fiction, asking,

...[M]ay a work of art borrow meaning by being itself meaningless? May it claim thereby to have criticized society? Or to have recreated our experience? May a work claim for itself whole hunks of other people’s thoughts on the flimsy grounds that the work itself, being so fragmented, typifies our experience...?

There are two questions here (though I realize it looks like four!): One has to do with slipshod, dishonest writing. James Joyce fractured the narrative of Ulysses over and over again, but no one—certainly neither Kazin nor Dillard—would dismiss that great work as slipshod. The second question, assuming great care and courage on the part of the writer, remains very serious:

If the writer’s honest intention is to recreate a world he finds meaningless, must his work then be meaningless?

On the way to her answer to this question, Dillard addresses the problem of flatness. In terms that again remind me of The Painted Word, she notes,

A writer may make his aesthetic surfaces very, very good and even appealing, in the hope that those surface excellences will impart to the work enough positive value, as it were, to overwhelm its negativity.

But in the final analysis, attractive surfaces are not enough for Dillard. The flattest, most fractured piece of fiction, however attractive, to succeed as art requires integrity. The “broken, sophisticated” feature of modernist may be reproduced by a writer lacking the effort or skill to finish the job:

He may fool himself into shirking the difficult, heartbreaking task of structuring a work of art on the grounds that art is imitation (all of a sudden) and a slapdash fiction imitates a seriously troubled world.

Style can be imitated. Integrity cannot.

The “flatness” of what Dillard calls modernist fiction, therefore, is not a problem for her, as she sees it, but the “slovenliness” of which Kazin complained definitely is. There is a wide gulf between “art and mere glibness,” and similar surfaces do not always indicate the quality of different works. Narrative unity may be lacking, but without integrity, without artistic coherence, there is only smoke, no fire.

These two books are so deep and rich, as well as so wonderfully, tantalizingly quotable, that it is almost impossible to read either one without dog-earing pages or underlining sentences or writing in margins. Luckily, mine are paperback copies, and so I have been giving myself this rare treat. Here’s what I mean:

Far from being like a receptacle in which you, the artist, drop your ideas, and far from being like a lump of clay which you pummel until it fits your notion of an ashtray, the art object is more like an enthusiastic and ill-trained Labrador retriever which yanks you into traffic. – Annie Dillard 

Actually, if there were more intimate experience of art and less self-conscious use of art, we might see that none of us can fully explain the effect of art, or correct it when it is unsatisfactory, or keep it up as an ecstatic experience all the time. If we in this country had an honest sense of the limits of art, we would have a more grateful sense of its power. – Alfred Kazin 

What shall it be? Do art’s complex and balanced relationships among all parts, its purpose, significance, and harmony, exist in nature? Is nature whole, like a completed thought? Is history purposeful? Is the universe of matter significant? I am sorry; I do not know. – Annie Dillard
* * *

P.S. Northport Notes: This Friday evening is high school graduation. There are seven graduates this year. Saturday evening and Sunday morning are lectures at Trinity Congregational by this year's Belko Peace speaker. (See right-hand column for more detail.)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Behind the Counter at the Burger Shack


[This is now (since I have changed the order of the stories and will be rewriting one of them) the fourth piece of my ten-story cycle, a series connected more or less tenuously, depending on the story, by the Rocket’s Burger Shack setting. If you missed the first story, you can read it here, the second here, and the third here. These are interrelated stories rather than a novel, but the last story brings them all together.]

      “Welcome to Piggy’s. May I take your order?”

      One day those words would slip out of her mouth, and on that day she would lose her job, and it would be all Rhonda’s fault. If she were lucky, it wouldn’t happen before she had her associate’s degree, and if she were very lucky that associate’s degree would get her into a good college, so that from there she could go on to graduate school and, finally, a job in social work. Becky wanted to help people in a meaningful way. She wanted to make the world a better place. Hawking burgers was a temporary necessity, paying (barely) her share of rent and groceries. Rhonda, the difficult roommate, always poking fun at Becky’s job and calling Rocket’s Burger Shack “Piggy’s" found humor in Becky’s career aspirations, too.

Becky didn’t hate her job. She saw it as yet another opportunity to learn about people, all this learning a preparation for the real work she would have someday. So okay, fast food wasn’t her career, but it still mattered, didn’t it? Becky believed she could make a difference in people’s days, especially when she worked the early morning shift. She smiled at everyone, bantered with the men who wanted to flirt (as many of them did, because she was young and cute and knew it), kept her cool when dealing with teenagers, and calmed harassed parents and noisy children by not rushing them through the line. She saw and pitied the chronic overeaters, who acted like they wanted their bodies to be invisible, and she took note of men and women who never ordered anything but coffee and then sat for two hours over the newspaper, circling want ads and then turning to the crossword puzzle to kill time. She observed parents who ordered meals for their kids but not for themselves, and she thought about the sacrifices her own parents had made for her. There were all kinds.

Yes, she saw all kinds at Rocket’s. Loud adolescents whose bodies and voices took up three times the space of even the fattest customer, these lanky young ones pushing each other in loud groups, ordering fries (“Large”) and soft drinks (“Large”) on their way to school. When they made their noisy exit the whole building seemed to heave a collective sigh. A few business people, mostly realtors or salesmen, used Rocket’s for morning or noon meetings, and Becky wondered why. Did they not have offices of their own? Maybe they just preferred Rocket’s atmosphere. Bland and anonymous from coast to coast, it seemed an unlikely to do business but maybe it worked well for just that reason.

At two o’clock Becky either rushed to the restroom to change clothes before driving to the community college across town or, on days when she had evening classes, returning to the apartment to study for the remainder of the afternoon.

The hours weren’t bad. She didn’t mind the work or the customers. The worst thing about her job was the uniform, a silver 1950’s retro design with high shoulder wings and short flared skirt. Becky filled it out nicely but still hated the horrid little minidress. Wings and flares! She could have designed a better look in her sleep!

      “But it’s not just a ‘stupid job,’” she argued with Rhonda. Rhonda had lasted only four days in her most recent job before she walked off in disgust. “You seem to like the food I buy with my paycheck okay!” Becky hated to hear her voice slip into sarcasm, but Rhonda’s expression never changed. “Besides,” Becky went on hurriedly to get past her conscience, “the people who come into Rocket’s, or people like them, they’ll be my clients someday.” She regretted that sentence even more, regretted it while the words were still issuing from her mouth. She wouldn’t have said it if she hadn’t believed it, but she regretted having offered her cherished dream to Rhonda, who never let any serious observation pass by without subjecting it to ridicule.

      Now, since that slip, on Mondays and Wednesdays, Becky could count on a sarcastic greeting as soon as she walked in the apartment door. “Did you leave Piggy World a better place today? Save anyone from suicide? Oh, by the way, the pope called while you were out. You need to call back. Something about sainthood, I think. Or maybe it was only beatification—I can’t remember.” Rhonda didn’t smile and her tone was dry and ironic, as always.

      Becky blushed furiously but held her tongue. How would you ever know if you’d given someone a reason to go on living? What would it take? Maybe just one kind word! Rhonda accused Becky of being sentimental and naive, but what did Rhonda ever do but sit around on her butt and make fun of everyone and everything? She certainly wasn’t making the world better! She didn’t even make life in the apartment better, and how hard would it be for her run the vacuum cleaner once in a while or do a few dishes or clean the refrigerator or the bathtub or just pick up her own dirty clothes and empty potato chip bags?

      In her classes, Becky felt alive and motivated. She couldn’t learn fast enough and couldn’t wait to put her learning into practice, which was why liked to imagine, secretly, the Rocket’s customers as social work clients in need of her understanding. It kept her from being bored by the work or irritated by some of the people she had to wait on. In that way, work was almost as good as classes. Only at home, in the apartment, the one place she should have been able to relax before another day of work and school, were her nerves were scraped raw by chaos and ridicule. The place was completely out of control, sink and stove full of dishes (Rhonda’s), bathroom floor and bathtub edge draped with wet towels and discarded underwear (Rhonda’s), and Rhonda was almost always there, hanging around doing nothing, television blaring. If only she would say nothing, too, it might be bearable, but no, she was always ready to slip her verbal knife into an opening, and she would make an opening if need be. There, she was never at a loss. 

“It’s my talent,” she replied nonchalantly when Becky asked her once why she had to be so nasty all the time. “Don’t you see how stupid and pointless life is? Well, I do, and I say what I see.” She stared at Becky fixedly, like a border collie staring at a sheep to hold it in place but with an expression of purely human contempt.
Rhonda’s smart mouth a “talent”! Becky started paying attention to the movies and TV programs Rhonda liked, and sure enough, her favorite shows were satire (so-called!) that held nothing sacred. The more outrageous the script or ad-libbed patter, the higher Rhonda rated the show. She liked movies with nonstop action and plenty of violence, refusing to recognize any of it as gratuitous. Only “sincerity” put her off. That was where she drew the line.

“Please! All that crap about pretending we’re not animals. We’re animals! Jeez, gimme a break!” Her brown, almond-shaped eyes smoldered darkly. She was a beautiful girl, really, long-limbed and naturally graceful. Draped the length of the sofa, for example, her eyes on the TV screen, her body fell into unconsciously artistic poses. But there was something frightening about her, too, an alertness that never slept but was always coiled and ready to strike.

What could it mean to be talented in cruelty, at taking advantage of others? And why would someone be intentionally mean, anyway?

“Don’t confuse motivation with intent,” counseled Martha, absent-mindedly pulling her hair back into a rubber band to get it out of her face. Pre-law and the plainest of the three roommates, Martha was oblivious to appearance and lived only to study but could be tempted away from her books if a topic connected to her field of interest. “Intent means you did something on purpose, not accidentally. Motivation is why you did it.”

Becky took a moment to consider the distinction, hoping she could wring useful information out of Martha if she kept her talking. “Like, someone can do something bad on purpose for good reasons? Like killing someone in self-defense?”

“It’s an extenuating circumstance, yes. It puts the killing in a different light. But say you—you, Becky—take money out of the cash register at Rocket’s. Say you don’t have any money with you and you need to buy milk before you go home because there’s none left. You tell yourself you’ll pay the money back tomorrow. But you’re careful to make sure no one sees you slip the money out of the drawer and into your pocket.”

“So my intent was to get money to buy milk--.”

“Your intent was to take money that wasn’t yours and not get caught taking it. Buying milk was your motivation. But who cares about your motivation? Even if you were motivated to steal because you had to buy medicine, it would still be stealing!”

Martha’s tone was so triumphant that Becky wouldn’t have been surprised if she had added, “I rest my case!” Martha could be a riot sometimes without ever intending to be funny, probably without even realizing that others were amused by her emphatic pronouncements.

“So it’s stealing even if I’m going to put the money back in the drawer the next day? I don’t get it. Why isn’t it borrowing?”

“Think about it. What if you forget the next day? Or what if you remember but you still don’t have the money? You only took a five-dollar bill, and you ask yourself how much difference that can make to Rocket’s profit margin. Several days go by, and the five dollars completely slips your mind. But it was just as much stealing when you did it as it is when you don’t pay it back day after day. It was stealing right from the start.”

“I didn’t intend to forget,” Becky objected.

“But you intended to sneak the money out of the drawer, and that’s exactly what you did. If you’d asked someone at work to loan you five dollars, that would have been borrowing.”

“What I asked about was motivation,” Becky reminded her. As usual for these late-night conversations, she was sitting cross-legged on her bed, facing Martha, who turned from her desk to lean on the back of her chair.

“Like, what motivated you to steal instead of borrowing the money you needed?”

“That was your example, and it’s totally academic. You know I would never steal! What I want to know is, if someone is always making smart-aleck remarks, cutting other people down--.”

“Oh, God, you’re talking about Rhonda again! Why didn’t you just say so? With her, who the hell knows? Maybe it’s the only way she ever learned how to get attention. Or she’s jealous of you because you’re such a cute little cheerleader type. Or maybe she likes you and thinks you’ve got potential to be as smart as she is, and she wants to sharpen you up!” Martha laughed at her own joke, a sharp little puppy bark. “Because you know she thinks she’s pretty smart! But do you really care why she does it, or do you just want her to stop? How about you just stop letting it get to you? Analyze the problem, Becky, and figure out what you want. I need to study for a test tomorrow. Rhonda! Jeez!”

Martha turned back to her desk and hunched over her notebook, and Becky flopped backward on her bed, stretching and flexing her toes and ignoring the open textbook on her pillow. She could practically see, on the ceiling over her head, an outline with three branches representing the possibilities Martha had laid out. Okay, she had a pretty good imagination. Where would the possibilities lead?

She imagined first figuring out the why but not knowing how to stop the comments and still hating Rhonda. Sure, she might feel differently if she understood Rhonda’s motivation, but what if she didn’t? Or say she got Rhonda to shut up but never figured out why the strange girl had been so mean in the first place--or why she stopped! That would be better, but Becky liked to understand why people did things. Anyway, how was she supposed to hit on a strategy to make Rhonda stop without understanding Rhonda’s motivation in the first place? Trial and error could take forever!

If she didn’t let Rhonda’s jibes get to her, would Rhonda stop or go on being Rhonda? Probably stay the same, but it wouldn’t matter, and that was the beauty of the third branch. It was the old “The only person you can change is yourself” advice. Good advice! But how was Becky supposed to just stop being bothered? Easier said than done! I’m the way I am just like Rhonda’s the way she is, she thought resentfully. Why should I be the one who has to change?

“I analyzed, and I’m still stuck,” she told Martha the next day.

Martha sighed. “Becky, you’ve got three choices. Change your attitude, try to change the dynamic, or do nothing. It isn’t rocket science.” She paused and smiled. “It isn’t even burger science,” she added slyly.

“I hate the way things are now!”

“Do you? Maybe you don’t hate it as much as you think you do. Maybe you like everything to be Rhonda’s fault. Is that possible?”

Becky’s stare registered shocked disbelief. This was the roommate she’d trusted! This was crazy, Martha turning on her like this! An image from an old TV cartoon flashed into Becky’s head. She and Martha were the ones pulling a heavily loaded haywagon while Rhonda lounged on the bales of hay, riding along at her ease, laughing and playing the ukulele! Didn’t Martha see this, too? Jeez! This was hurt from an unexpected direction! “Burger science”? What was that supposed to mean?

The next morning at Rocket’s, taking an order from the fat man who always ordered the Super Galactica breakfast, Becky suddenly wondered how the fat man saw her. Did he see her as friendly or condescending? Did she look like a complete phony to him? Sound like an empty-headed ditz? As she took the twenty he handed her and reached to make change from the register, she glanced at the stack of five’s and remembered Martha’s silly example. The face of Honest Abe on the top bill of the stack leered up at her suggestively. Damn! Damn Rhonda and Martha both!

I’m a good person! She wanted to shout at the fat man, Can’t you see I’m a good person? I just want the world to be simple and good! She smiled desperately into the shiny red face, choking back a lump in her throat and watching with fascination the beads of perspiration that ran down his fleshy creases. He met her gaze timidly, while she maintained eye contact and a smile, ignoring the mocking faces of the bills in the drawer, faces she could still see clearly in her mind though the drawer was closed.

“Enjoy your breakfast!” she said to the fat man, as kindly as she could, but at the same time she couldn’t help seeing that he didn’t look any happier now than he had coming in the door.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Friend I’ll Never Meet

He was a veteran of life. He was a lover of books. He was, by his own account, a shy man who had trouble meeting strangers. Not a party animal, he touched many people through his blog, “Collecting Children’s Books,” and through his Facebook postings, many of them stories about his boyhood and other family members. I don’t remember the first time I visited Peter’s blog, but it quickly became one of my favorites, and we commented on each other’s postings and e-mailed once in a while.

Last year (was it only last year?) he bought a house and moved his parents into it, along with his beloved library of children’s books, many first and signed editions. He planted flowers and vegetables, baked pies, painted with watercolors to illustrate his stories, and photographed wild ducks visiting his pond. All of these quiet adventures he shared online, with writing that was honest and direct, engaged and engaging. Two weeks ago he posted about Maurice Sendak. Always, he jogged memories of everyone’s favorite childhood books, reminding us of characters we loved long ago.

It seems like only three days ago (but I can’t tell for sure, because older Facebook posts on Peter’s wall seem to have vanished—at least, I can’t call them up) that Peter wrote of a fall and a broken ankle. Now today I checked in, not looking for any big news but wondering how things were going, and to my shock I see that a family member has posted in Peter’s place, that he has passed away, and friends are offering condolences. I can’t believe it. 

Others knew Peter personally, from childhood or from work. I only knew him online and never even knew his age, but I can’t believe this friend I hadn’t met is now someone I will never meet—and that I miss him so much.

Peter, there was no one else like you, and no one can take your place. Others thought so, too. Here's one other of many. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bookishness in the Village of Northport

Social Ethicist To Speak at Trinity Congregational

It’s been there in the right-hand column for a few days, so maybe you’ve already noticed that Gary Dorrien is coming to town as this year’s Belko Peace Lecturer. Cornel West has called Dorrien “the preeminent social ethicist in American today.” Dorrien has authored 14 books and over 250 articles in ethics, social theory, philosophy, politics, history, and religion, and I’m more than tickled to tell you also that, while he grew up in Michigan’s Thumb region, he was born in the U.P. Yep, he’s a Yooper!

Dr. Dorrien taught for over 20 years at Kalamazoo College and is now an ordained Episcopal priest and the Reinhold Neibuhr professor of social ethics at Union Theological Seminary, as well as Professor of Religion at Columbia University. His talk on Saturday evening, June 2, will be on Social Ethics and the Economy. The presentation will begin at 7 p.m. Dorrien will speak a second time at the regular Sunday morning worship service, which begins at 11 a.m. 

Both presentations are free and open to the public, and there will be opportunities following both talks for questions and comments.

Friends of Library Summer Series

The Friends of the Leelanau Township Library, or Leelanau Township FOL, established in 1962, celebrates their 50th birthday this year, and the lineup for the Susanne Rose-Kraynik Summer Author Series is impressive: July 10, Stephanie Mills; July 17, Mario Batali, July 24, Teresa Scollon, July 31, Jim Ribby. All programs begin at 7:30 p.m.. They are free and open to the public, with donations appreciated.

Leelanau Twp. FOL will also host a strawberry brunch preceding the annual meeting on Saturday, June 9. The buffet brunch is scheduled for 11 a.m. at the township fire hall. Come and celebrate 50 years of a great organization. Reservations for the brunch should be made by Tuesday, June 5. Call the library at 231-386-5131. Cost to members is $12; nonmembers $15. f you aren't yet a member, please join! 

Michigan Poet Comes Home from New England

 Fleda Brown, long-time Michigan summer resident and recent Poet Laureate of Vermont, now retired to Traverse City and a frequent guest on Interlochen Public Radio, will be this summer's inaugural guest author at Dog Ears Books in Northport. She will read from her book of memoir essays, Driving with Dvorak, and, I hope, some of her poetry, also. I'll be telling you more about Fleda as we get closer to her appearance on June 22, but mark your calendar today.

Please have a happy and safe holiday weekend! See you again next week here at Books in Northport! 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Scenes and News From Down Under

Road to Varykino
Isn’t this a most inviting road, and wouldn’t you love to put yourself on it? Would you walk or drive? Maybe horseback would be best. Yes, I think so.

For quite a while I carried on correspondence with two friends I’d never met, and then in April Helen and I spent a week together in Arizona, two booksellers on winter vacation, and had a delightful time. I’ve been corresponding with Kathy for a year and a half, and we have yet to meet, but she lives on the other side of the world, literally. She and her husband, Grahame, make their home in New South Wales, Australia, and the photo on top of this post shows the road to their country B&B, Varykino. Kathy and I share love of animals, of books, of movies, and so we always have much to share in our e-mail letters to one another. Sometimes we put thoughts on paper or send each other physical books in the mail. I love the Australian stamps but feel guilty when a package arrives from Kathy, because it costs so much to send anything to the U.S. from Australia.

Here’s some of what’s happening in the Land of Oz these days: It’s late autumn, with winter just around the corner, and Kathy and Grahame lit their first fire in the fireplace last night. (Well, “last night” it was when she wrote to tell me the news: the time difference is something enormous.) In Tasmania (“a tiny place compared to the rest of Australia,” Kathy notes), the factory farming of chickens has been outlawed. Kathy finished reading Anne Tyler’s new book, The Beginner’s Goodbye, and is now enjoying The Descendants, by Kaui Hart Hemmings. And last but not least, that amazing and undefeated filly Black Caviar won her 21st race and will now go to Ascot. I am already dreaming of I’ll Have Another winning the Belmont, Black Caviar winning at Ascot, and the two of them meeting for one great, world-shaking race.

Until then, here are a couple of quieter horses, escaping fame in the New South Wales bush country. Looks like a pretty good life to me. As for a meeting with Kathy, the two of us are thinking that Paris, France, would be a nice rendez-vous destination, but if you're going to Australia what could be prettier than the bush country of New South Wales? There are wineries in the vicinity of Varykino, too--kind of a Leelanau Down Under?

Along Grahame's morning walk

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Maurice Sendak Pictures a Happy Family

My tribute to Maurice Sendak comes behind the many others that have poured out since his recent death. It’s also somewhat different, too, as I was caught without a single Sendak title on hand. Known for flights of fancy that sometimes took nightmare turns, Sendak spoke openly in interviews about his childhood fears and how, in many ways, he never left childhood. With art that transcended reality, however, the famous and much-beloved illustrator reworked fears and bad dreams into stories and images that comforted generations of readers and admirers. “You are not alone,” his work said to us.

But, as I say, I found no Maurice Sendak books in my shop last week. This is the nature of dealing with used books (the majority of my business): every day is potluck.

Then Peter Sieruta of “Collecting Children’s Books” gave me a broad hint, something I should have remembered myself, which is that over the years Sendak illustrated many books written by other authors. I raced to the shelves, and sure enough—there was an old library copy of The Singing Hill, by Meindert DeJong, illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

And look at this dedication:

Doesn't that make you smile?

Peter Sieruta had written that Sendak’s early book illustrations were in various different styles, so I was pleased to see that for this book by DeJong the style of the drawings was recognizably and distinctly Sendak. What is decidedly un-Sendak is this author’s story. Adults in The Singing Hill are comforters and protectors. Here is the main character, little Ray (not yet school age), first with his mother (left), then with his father (below).

Naturally, Ray harbors secret worries from time to time. What child does not? His older brother and sister’s squabbling and teasing and tall tales feed some of his worries, while others arise simply from the situation of the moment, and there are adventures and secrets galore in the family's new life in the country, but along the way and in the end Ray’s parents come through for him.

This little book pleases me. It pleases me that the author dedicated it to the illustrator and that Sendak, exercising his always-wild imagination, was able to create these loving family portraits. He did, after all, have a lot of love in his life. He loved life, and life loved him back.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Guest Blogger: Laurie Attends a Video Conference in Spain

My friend Laurie in Kalamazoo writes as follows:


Here are notes I took on a video of an excellent Master Class speech given by Chilean economist and environmentalist Manfred Max Neef.  The talk was given at the International University of Andalucía (Huelva, Spain), on December 1, 2009. Says Wikipedia,  
Max Neef, in 1982, won the Right Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative Nobel Prize, for his work in poverty-stricken areas of developing countries. He has worked with the problem of development in the Third World, describing the inappropriateness of conventional models of development that have contributed to poverty, debt and ecological disasters for Third World communities.

Below are the notes I jotted. (I apologize for any glaring errors – I was listening in Spanish and jotting in English.) Well worth reading. 
Laurie Kaniarz

Manfred Max Neef

(Laurie’s Notes)

When FAO (Food & Agriculture Organization) announced in October [2009] that 1 billion people around the world are hungry, and it would take $30 billion in aid annually to save these lives, at the same time, 6 Central Banks (US, EU, Japan, Canada, England, Switzerland) injected $180 billion into financial markets to save private banks, and have continued to do so, so that, as of September 2009, they’ve injected $17 trillion into the private banks.  $17 trillion is enough to save the world from hunger for 600 years. Where is that money now?

(Regarding the law of supply and demand: there’s much more demand for bread than plastic surgery, more need for a cure for malaria than haute couture dresses.  We need a referendum: do we want to save lives or banks? There’s never enough for those who have nothing.  Always enough for those who have everything.)
This is the most repugnant news I’ve ever heard.
There’s a 4-way convergence:

1. Exponential climate change

2. The end of cheap fuel

3. Diminishment of genetic natural resources: fresh water, energy, forests, fishing, wildlife, subsoil, coral reefs

4. Gigantic speculative bubble – 50 times greater than the real economy (interchange of goods and services)

The causes of this convergence:

1. The predominant paradigm of present-day economics is that we tend toward economic development at any cost, and this stimulates corporate greed.

2. Devouring fossil fuels propels that economic greed

3. Promotion of consumerism as the road to happiness

4. Destruction of traditional cultures and values to improve the industrial economic model

5. Scorn for the planet with the production of waste

There is danger in this for the environment and society.  Global warming implies the loss of productive soils, storms, hurricanes, desertification – all having implications for the poorest people on the planet. All systems are dependent on fuels.  There will be a further diminishment of species by 50% in the next decades.

 We have to accept the limits of what the earth can handle.

 We must move from “efficiency” to “sufficiency,” and solve inequality, because without equality, peaceful solutions are not possible.  We must replace the dominant values of greed, competition and accumulation with solidarity, cooperation and compassion.  Adjust ourselves to lower levels of production/consumption, favoring local economies. LOOK WITHIN once again, rather than outward.

We’re in the 21st century, trying to solve our problems with 19th century economics, even though we no longer use 19th century physics, biology, anthropology, medicine, etc.

 Economic “neo-liberalism” is a pseudo religion.  It conquered the world in a few decades, which religion [Christianity, Laurie?] couldn’t do in 2000 years.

Myth 1: Globalization is the only way to development.  Between 1960-1980, “don’t import what you can produce at home.” Between 1980-2000 this was replaced by deregulation, privatization, elimination of international trade barriers, and full openness to foreign investment.  Between ’60-’80, the poorest developing countries grew 2%.  Between ’80-’00, they had declined 0.5%.

Myth 2: Greater integration in the global economy is good for the poor. But it causes the poor countries to look outward rather than at their own people’s needs.  The 7 richest countries are 50 times richer now than the poorest 7.

Myth 3: Comparative advantage is the best way to ensure prosperity – “free world trade.” Prices can be lower, but 
costs to society & environment are enormous.

Myth 4: More globalization + more jobs. There are fewer jobs in countries of origin, more sub-employment in the outsourcing countries.

Myth #5: Globalization is democratic and transparent. Decisions about world commerce are made by unelected bureaucrats who work behind closed doors in Geneva [World Monetary Fund - WMF].  Their decisions cannot be appealed.  If a country that receiving translational investment has an inconvenient law, it must abolish the law. This affects the very idea of democracy if it has to adapt to the interests of the corporation. 
The WMF has no rules about child labor or labor rights.  All rules benefit the corporations.  Poor countries are prohibited from producing their own generic drugs, for example: they’re obligated to buy from transnationals. Africa has the resources, but can’t produce its own drugs.  The WMF is dedicated to ensuring that corporations govern the world.  Imports and exports are not between countries but between corporations.
Myth #6:  Globalization is unavoidable. ANYTHING arising from politics is reversible. What needs to be done is to take back local decisions that bring consumption back to the local market.  A human-scale economy.
New rules could be: 

- Profits flow back as much as possible to their place of origin.  Unsustainable – taking up huge amounts of resources – is transport over huge distances. In Chile, in the huge, state-of-the-art dairy producing region of the country, I unwrapped a butter packet that came from New Zealand.  It’s cheaper if you look at it from the point of view of an economist, but prices never tell the truth.  The cost of the environmental impact of shipping, to economists, has a value of “0.” Plus, the shipping was subsidized by New Zealand – also a value of “0.” The fact that local producers will go bankrupt – “0.” Same with energy: “This type of [alternative] energy is more expensive.” End of story.
But it’s only “more expensive” depending on how you make the calculation.  If you give value to the impacts, that which is deemed “more expensive” becomes cheaper. 
- Bring back safeguards to local economies with tariffs and quotas to avoid monopolies.
- Ecological taxes.  Taxes on energy use that causes pollution and negative impacts.  We’ve created a “fun” society and we pay taxes on that.  We should pay taxes on the bad, too. They tax you for working, for investing, but not for dirtying, polluting, destroying – you get to do that for free. You should be taxed for how many kilowatts you use rather than on how much you earn.  This would have a formidable impact on world economy.  They are doing this in Scandinavian countries.

- In Sweden, eco-municipalities receive the benefits of income tax, not the State.  You pay your tax and immediately see – and have influence on – how it’s used, in the place where you live.

I propose this new economy for the 21st Century, with 5 principal postulates:

1.  The economy should serve the people – the people should not serve the economy.

2. Development has to be with/for people, not objects

3. Growth is not the same as development, and development does not necessarily need growth.

4. No economy is possible at the exclusion of the services provided by ecosystems.

5. Economy is a subsystem of a great system – the biosphere – and so permanent growth is impossible.

A fundamental principle value I propose to sustain the new economy:

 No economic interest, under any circumstance, should ever be held above the reverence for life on the planet.

 But what we have today is exactly the opposite of what I have postulated:

- We’re in a world in which each of us is at the service of economic interests, not the opposite.

- We identify economic development as who has the most cellphones, computers, etc.  The human being disappears in the process.

- There is an obsession with growth as the only measure, but growth is a quantitative measure, and development is a liberation of creative potentials.

 All living systems grow until they stop growing, but they don’t stop developing. We’ve all stopped growing, but we’re in this room [at the conference] because we haven’t stopped developing – more ideas, more information.  Growth has limits, development doesn’t.

My hero, a man I consider the greatest thinker, Kenneth Boulding, said, “Anyone who thinks permanent growth is possible on a finite planet is either crazy or an economist.” [Kenneth Ewart Boulding (January 18, 1910 – March 18, 1993) was an economist, educator, peace activist, poet, religious mystic, devoted Quaker, systems scientist, and interdisciplinary philosopher. He was cofounder of General Systems Theory and founder of numerous ongoing intellectual projects in economics and social science. - Wikipedia]
No economy is possible at the exclusion of the services provided by the ecosystem.  The economy is a closed system that doesn’t relate to families or nature.  Economists think they don’t need to know about pollination.
 Growth can’t be infinite on a finite planet.  If I want to blow up a big balloon, I can’t blow it up bigger than the room I’m in.

There is a need for reverence for life. Too many people say, “Life doesn’t mean anything … as long as I can do business.” Millions of children are slaves. According to UNICEF and other organizations, in the 21st century, there are more slaves in the world than when slavery was abolished in the 19th century. Tens of millions of slaves, two-thirds of them children.  It doesn’t show up in the news.  “With so many kids in the world, who cares?”  Why doesn’t it show up?  SLAVERY IS GOOD BUSINESS – YOU CAN MAKE GOOD MONEY AT IT.
Don’t expect the solution to come down from Mt. Sinai.  It’s up to us.  It starts with each one acting according to his/her belief system and loves.  Don’t ask yourself, “But what can I do?”  That’s defeatist.  ANY ONE OF US can do something at any moment that could change history.

 Examples:  Gandhi got sick of being discriminated against as “colored.” He started out being a nobody, a lawyer, but defeated the most powerful nation on earth. Rosa Parks sat in the white section of a bus and said, “I’m too tired to move.” She was [considered] less than nobody, but sparked the civil rights movement.  They both acted according to their beliefs. 

This won’t happen to you if you always adapt to what you don’t believe in.  Don’t act according to what’s best for you – advice we all get – but what’s best for all.  We all get this bad advice – I’ve given it myself, and I apologize to anyone I’ve ever given it to: “You’ve got to see your goals clearly to know where you want to go.” If you look toward one fixed goal, you won’t see the people you trample on to get there.  It’s a miserable life if you do what you “should” rather than what you MUST do.  The way you can have a happy life is living according to your beliefs.

Here’s some better advice: Drift and steer in a state of alert/attention.  This doesn’t mean you’re at the mercy of the current.  Life is like surfing: you can’t decide where you’re going to end up on the beach because you can’t predict what the waves will do.  But if you’ve got all your antennae up, if you make judgments about what to do as each condition comes up, you’ll end up somewhere along the beach. 

Creativity encourages us to create a world in which we are all relatively happy.
People who know where they’re going never discover anything because they’re obsessed with where they’re going.  But “obstacles” are all the adventure.

Manfred Max Neef’s bibliography includes:
0.Max-Neef, Manfred A; Antonio Elizalde, Martin Hopenhayn (1991) (pdf). Human Scale Development. The Apex Press. pp. 114. ISBN 0-945257-35-X. neef_Human_Scale_development.pdf. Retrieved 2011-02-15.
Laurie Kaniarz is a graduate of Kalamazoo College. She has lived and traveled in Spain and South America and is currently employed by Foods Resource Bank in Kalamazoo. FRB is not an emergency aid organization but works to move people in poor countries toward long-term, sustainable food security.

...old photo of Laurie and me in Leland's historic Fishtown....

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

From Northern Michigan to Northern Kentucky

Where are we? Italy? No, this is Northport, my usual haunt, with the Waukazoo Revival in full swing. I’ll say more soon of the new business that will open in June two doors south of me. The name is Motovino. I know, I know. It sounds Italian, too. But that's kind of fun, isn't it?

Moving north--

A new children's book has arrived this season at Dog Ears Books on Waukazoo Street, a charming and fanciful story that is fun to read aloud and entertaining to hear. The author, Bill O. Smith of Traverse City, a retired school principal, knows his audience, as does the illustrator, Traverse City artist Charles R. Murphy. Don’t these glimpses make you want more?

For a very quick morning visit Up North to see the wildflowers in the woods before you head off to your job this morning, click here.

Next--and this may have to wait until you have more time--please make yourself comfortable, turn up the sound, and settle in for a visit with Wendell Berry. His April 23 Jefferson lecture to the National Endowment for the Humanities is something not to miss if you care about any (or, I hope, all) of the following:

o    affection
o    charity
o    commitment
o    community
o    earth
o    economy
o    family
o    farmers
o    farming
o    home
o    knowledge
o    land use
o    nature
o    responsibility
o    neighbors
o    property
o    value
o    work