I must have been eleven years old when I first snatched a Philip Roth novel from my Mom's bookshelf. This was after I devoured a ribald paperback called Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent, an illicit sex comedy featuring Jewish New Yorkers in various undignified erotic escapades that my Grandma Jeannette had brought up from Miami Beach. This funny book advertised itself on its cover as "the feminine rejoinder to Portnoy's Complaint!", which made no sense to me until I discovered in my mother's bookshelves a slender paperback titled Portnoy's Complaint, with a fluorescent yellow cover, ripe as a banana. Naturally, I grabbed it.
But I didn't enjoy Portnoy's Complaint as well as Sheila Levine. Levine was a cheerful, freewheeling urban sex comedy featuring broad characters like the shleppy but sex-starved title character, and Norman, her affable standby boyfriend, who always wore leisure suits bearing flecks. Portnoy's Complaint was something more nasty, more tormented. Instead of hapless Sheila and safe Norman there was a deeply angry and self-loathing hero named Alex Portnoy, and a sinister, passive-aggressive female predator known as the Monkey, and then a strong woman in Israel whose sexual self-assurance renders the hero impotent. The book's riffs on artful masturbation were funny, but there wasn't much else for an eager 11-year-old like me to relate to. I was also put off by an undertone of hostility to both women and Christians, a heaviness that made this Jewish sex comedy feel more oppressive than liberating, more thorny than horny.
First, we are transported to the Oregon Coast:
Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range ... come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River ...
The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting ... forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creek, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce -- and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir -- the actual river falls 500 feet ... and look: opens out upon the fields."
Then, we notice that a human arm is dangling over the river:
Twisting and stopping and slowly untwisting in the gusting rain, eight or ten feet above the flood’s current, a human arm, tied at the wrist (just the arm; look) disappearing downward at the frayed shoulder where an invisible dancer performs twisting pirouettes for an enthralled audience (just the arm, turning there, above the water)…” [The human arm is also flipping the bird to the enraged union men on the other shore].
And from the very beginning of Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey's second novel and eagerly-awaited follow-up to his acclaimed One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, we are hooked.
I was talking with friends about the post-Thanksgiving "Black Friday" shopping craze that has become an increasing meme in the United States of America over the past few years. The prevailing opinion among my friends is that this trend represents yet another terrible new turn towards casual violence, selfishness and greed in our craven society, and reports of maniacal frenzies at spots like this Walmart in Moultrie, Georgia seem to bear this interpretation out. One person caught in the Moultrie, Georgia frenzy was quoted expressing disgust about what went down:
While we're watching counterculture moments on television from the 1960s,here's something else I just stumbled across: the joyful jazz composer, performer and beatnik David Amram on the kid's show Wonderama. He demonstrates his favorite instruments, and naturally leads a jam session with the kids, who are way into it.
Amram turns 82 years old this weekend, which means the promising new film David Amram: The First 80 Years must be nearing its second birthday ... and I haven't seen it yet! I hope this documentary film will reach more theaters, and will get a much-deserved spot on public television or some other music channel. One thing's for sure: audiences will love it, because Amram never fails to win an audience over. Here's the trailer for the film:
Shared Experience. For all their gross inanity, presidential elections in the United States of America are enthralling shared experiences, like sporting events or rock concerts. The collective mind buzzes and reacts as a single thinking unit, bitterly torn but phenomenologically connected, lurching back and forth in fits and shocks and waves.
Authentic shared experiences don't happen very often -- though perhaps the most important shared experiences we go through involve terrible crises like the South Asian tsunami of 2004, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the earthquake and tsunami last year in Japan, or the flood following Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey last week. These frightening events help to remind us not to get so caught up in the whitewashed dumbshow of presidential elections that we forget to also care about issues like global climate change -- issues that fail to get mentioned in elections, because they aren't part of either party's poll-tested path to victory. Years from now, we may look back and remember that those were the most important issues of all.
Dishonesty As Hammer The shared experience of a presidential election has more intellectual substance than many other kinds of shared experience, even though by the end of an election season (the current one, a long and crazy one, will finally be over on Tuesday) our intellects may feel numb and battered by the constant assaults against truthfulness and honesty.
Even a relatively straightforward candidate like Barack Obama pushes the limits of credulity often during debates or campaign speeches, though Obama's single worst campaign moment was the first debate with Mitt Romney, in which he was caught not lying but dozing, playing it safe, appearing aloof.
What a sweet surprise! The calescent American novelist Joyce Carol Oates has taken to twittering between novels, and she's awfully good at it.
"A tweet is a synaptic leap with no neuron awaiting", she wrote on October 18, preceded by this: "Consciousness is most tolerable when semi-, quasi-, or un-." She seems to be aiming for a fast connection to her readers, and is clearly enjoying the freedom the new medium gives her. She's also not above telling stories about her cats or her campus adventures at Princeton. Joyce Carol Oates, who Litkicks still thinks ought to be in the movies, because she's so magnetic, has also recently found the time to edit a new Oxford University Press anthology, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, featuring some well-worn classics along with newer names like Lorrie Moore, Pinckney Benedict, Junot Diaz.
No word has been thrown around more during the USA presidential election of 2012 than "jobs". The single greatest failure of the Obama administration, according to Mitt Romney and his supporters, is the unemployment rate. More jobs, we are told, will save the economy, and Mitt Romney has pledged to create 12 million new ones. Here's a typical Romney quote about working women and day care.
“I wanted to increase the work requirement,” said Romney. “I said, for instance, that even if you have a child 2 years of age, you need to go to work. And people said, ‘Well that’s heartless.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I’m willing to spend more giving day care to allow those parents to go back to work. It’ll cost the state more providing that daycare, but I want the individuals to have the dignity of work.’”
It's so easy to tangle Mitt Romney up in his own words that there's often no sport in it. This quote caused Romney some problems because of the arrogance it expressed towards mothers who might wish to raise their children rather than put them in day care. But there's more to examine here. The final phrase of the quote -- "the dignity of work" -- is revealing in ways that go beyond gender.
The sacred ideal of the full-time job is one of the major themes of the Plutocrat/Randian wing of the Republican party, and, beyond that, of American culture as a whole. This comes out often in our current debates: the coddling of "job creators", the singular obsession with unemployment rates, the idea that health insurance is best managed by employers rather than by the federal government. This idea that we are better off trusting our employers than we are trusting the federal government is an idea that most of us who actually depend on full-time jobs for our livelihood can only laugh at.
The free job market, according to the Plutocrats, assures excellence through the profit motive, through natural selection. Unlike the mediocrity, dishonesty and dependency of the so-called nanny state economy, an economy rooted solely in free enterprise and capitalist self-interest will invigorate and inspire us all. But what about the mediocrity, dishonesty and dependency we all see inside the free job market?
"A small crowd gathered around the dumpster in the rain. Word filtered back that the girl was a teenage hitchhiker. I remember thinking that it could be me, because I was also a teenage hitchhiker."
That's Vanessa Veselka, up-and-coming novelist and Litkicks favorite, telling a harrowing true story about a past run-in with a serial killer in the pages of the latest (November 2012) GQ magazine. GQ doesn't seem to have the story online (have they heard that Newsweek is going all-digital? GQ may want to update its content strategy) but it's worth seeking out. We're glad Vanessa Veselka is being more careful (we think) about her personal safety today.
Two and a half years ago, I watched the televised bipartisan Health Care Summit called by President Obama to help find a way to pass his embattled but vitally important health insurance reform bill (a few weeks later, Obamacare finally became law). During these intense sessions, I noticed a single Republican politician at the table who seemed far more driven and articulate than all the others. This was my first glimpse of Paul Ryan, the young Wisconsin congressman and House Budget Chief, and I immediately knew he was a politician to watch. Closely ...
My first impression of Paul Ryan became complete when I discovered that he is an enthusiastic follower of Ayn Rand (though he later tried to cover this up after discovering that Ayn Rand polls very badly with religious voters). I don't think it reflects badly on Paul Ryan's character that he believes in Ayn Rand's philosophy of extreme free-market capitalism. I have tried to reach out to the growing worldwide community of Rand enthusiasts through blog posts and a book called Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), a book that evaluates the Rand doctrine seriously and treats her followers with respect. The book has been a success in several ways -- it continues to sell hundreds of copies each month (it has received a significant Paul Ryan bump), and has also allowed me to enter into private or public discussions with Objectivists all over the world when they contact me with critiques of my book. This experience confirms for me what I already knew: Objectivists tend to be very smart, complex, articulate and creative people. The stereotype of a Randian as a lunkheaded bully belongs to the past; today's Randians are young and energetic and full of new ideas. And their ranks are growing, not shrinking -- Ayn Rand is dead, but Objectivism is increasingly seen as a movement for the future.
It shouldn't reflect badly on Paul Ryan's character that he is into Ayn Rand. However, it should reflect very badly -- very, very badly -- on his claim to be a good choice for Vice President of the United States. Do we want an Objectivist one heartbeat away from the leadership of our great nation? I'm sure we don't.
I don't always love Moby Dick tie-ins, and it was only with some amount of weary skepticism that I opened Dive Deeper, a book of essays about Herman Melville's great novel, composed by a history professor from California named George Cotkin. I was in for a pleasant surprise.
Cotkin has a big taste for fresh angles, and his freewheeling book delivers one suprising connection after another. After all that has been said about Melville's novel, it's amazing how much in this book has not been said before. One of Moby Dick's early land-bound scenes takes Ishmael wandering into an African-American church in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he spies a hell-breathing preacher holding an entire parish spellbound. Is it possible, George Cotkin wonders, that this preacher would have been Frederick Douglass, who had in fact had orated to enthusiastic crowds in New Bedford during the years that Herman Melville had passed through this town on his own whaling journey?