I've been using Good Reads a lot to review books and get tips from friends of good stuff they're reading.
Last week I read a book called "Unmarketable." It has a detailed and workable plan for resisting and totally destroying all commercial marketing everywhere and then in fact eradicating corporate consumer culture completely! It's a great book!
No, actually, the book was kind of underwhelming.
A lot of it is old hat to me, the copyright stuff, etc, but it documents some very recent developments in marketing that are extremely disturbing.
If you've already read books like Conquest of Cool, No Logo, Captains of Conciousness, or been reading zines like Stay Free!, this is not going to be a really useful or revelatory book.
Overall, i was disappointed because the book doesn't really provide many solutions. there's a chapter at the end called "taking dissent off the market", but it only provides one example, and a pretty tepid one, of people trying to fight and answer these latest trends in marketing. it also didn't address a fundamental question: why do some people not "get it"? Why do people, even people involved with "underground" or DIY expression, not "get" that it's a political act, and that you're helping to dilute and destroy integrity every time you go over to the other side? I guess it's just like every other political issue - some see the problem, others are just living blissfully stupid and happy. And I suppose some might say that about me (like maybe some think i'm a blissfully stupid idiot for not agreeing that fighting for impeachment of Bush is vitally important and worthy of my time).
Anyway, the book mostly just created a sense of hopelessness, and a depressed feeling that the only way to really prevail over corporate hegemony is some sort of a Fight Club style destruction of our entire civilization. sigh.
I'm way behind on my book reviews - I wanted to blog about the last few books I've read, and the list keeps growing.
I'll start with a quite large book that is itself the abridged version of a 7-volume set authored by William T. Vollman. It's called "Rising Up and Rising Down", a project Vollman worked on for 23 years, and it's all about violence, and when it's okay or not okay to use it.
Vollman is one of my favorite fiction writers, having a gritty style similar to Pynchon, Burroughs, Vonnegut, that sort of thing, with a focus usually on the dark underbelly of society, such as prostitutes, guerillas, drug addicts, war zones, and the like. But Vollman is also a journalist, and he's been to some of the most dangerous places on earth, like Kosovo, Colombia, Somalia, etc. All these experiences have been research opportunities for "Rising Up and Rising Down".
His task was to figure out every category of violent act and then explain whether the actor was justified doing it, and why. The centerpiece of the book is what he calls the Moral Calculus, a long, exacting outline-format explication of all the different reasons and excuses people might have for using force: everything from defense of class to defense of land to defense of the earth. It's pretty complete, and it would be worthwhile to make a small booklet out of just this part, which takes up about 60 pages.
On either side of this section is basically case studies - first, historical ones, based on research, like the case of Trotsky and the Russian Revolution, or Lincoln and the Civil War. At the end of the book is more personal, anecdotal case studies, from Vollman's own experience.
As I read this I realized, and not for the first time, that I'm someone that spends a lot of time thinking about what is right and what is wrong. What is the ethical and moral way to behave? Can one defend how one behaves? And I think it's important for people to think about this. I spend quite a bit of time, in turn, marvelling at how many humans don't seem to think much about it. They don't give a fuck about doing the right thing.
For instance, just today I brought up, very seriously, some of my objections to using MySpace (not to argue that one absolutely shouldn't, but just that one should be aware that using it is a compromise, and you should only use it in a limited way, and in the most subversive manner possible), to a certain local organization I'm part of that is all about media democracy and media literacy and providing the tools of media production to those who wouldn't normally have them. After a couple responsible replies from a couple others, one person just made a joke about how yes, she did use myspace and she also sometimes forgot to cut up plastic 6-pack holders, and a list of other "bad" things she did. Very flippant, very cocky. Well, fuck you.
Doing the right thing and being serious about how you behave in the world DOES matter, and if you're going to live like every other American fuckwad and yet talk like you don't, then you're even worse than those clueless dipshits. Put your money where your mouth is or get the fuck out of my way.
So, I'm going off on a tangent a little but I mention it because that's why books like Vollman's are important - there's so much cognitive dissonance out there, so many people who aren't squarely looking at what they do and what they object to and why, that anything that can help make it clearer is a great service to the world.
It's very easy for someone to rationalise doing something that they really know deep down is not good, but not all rationalizations are created equal.
Oh and speaking of books, I'm really getting into GoodReads, lately.
Coming up next, another book about another journalist who visits horrible places...
I just finished skimming through (reading maybe half of the reviews) a zine called "Best Zine Ever!" It's a review zine that has short descriptions of a great many recent issues of zines.
One big thing popped out at me as I looked at it: most zines these days, or at least the ones this review zine tends to like, are "perzines," in other words, personal zines, which are pretty much autobiographical affairs that concentrate on daily life and "finding oneself," travelogues, etc. There's nothing wrong with this, and in fact I enjoy a lot of perzines. However, where are all the other zines? I remember when there were zines about everything. Cooking, politics, music (of course), science fiction, art, various subcultures, various lifestyles. Now, instead of doing more journalistic or survey type DIY publications, zinesters seem to be concentrating on very self-focussed writing and cartooning.
If this is the case for the zine world at large and not just the preference of collective of reviewers who write for "Best Zine Ever!", then why is this? I have 2 theories: 1) people interested in other topics have moved their efforts largely to the web. 2) the decrease in publication costs have led to people interested in other topics to go into producing publications with higher production values, which start to be considered more "magazines" and not "zines" anymore (although I would contend that the measure of "zineness" is more about funding sources and intent, rather than just production values).
Either way, it's an interesting social phenomenon. People who have more exterior concerns have moved on, for one reason or another, and that's a bit sad, in a way. Others who still make zines are more concerned with the interior life, in self-expression, and are, perhaps rightly, not interested in or are cautious about having their navel-gazing reach a truly large audience, which the web and better print quality would potentially provide.
For the new, fourth issue of the Dry River zine, coming out soon, I wrote a review of a really good new book called "Getting Free." It's also sort of a review of John Holloway's book, "Change the World Without Taking Power." For those of you who don't want to wait to get a copy of the zine, you can
download the PDF of my review here.
I'm reading a borrowed copy of Julio Cortázar's "Hopscotch," and ever since I started it 5 days ago I wonder with each turn of the page whether I should keep reading. That's a bad sign. Why do I feel this way? And why do I continue? The answer to the second question is that it's an author that I "should" be interested in, according to activist friends who have said that Subcommandante Marcos, as a writer, was influenced by Cortazar's writing. It's just another example of that shelf full of "High Art" in my life, whether it be music, novels, or paintings, or whatever, that I do not find entertaining, that does not compel me (to keep turning the page, keep listening again and again, looking again and again, no), but instead is just there in my gaze because, as a discriminating, cultured culture-vulture, I should have it on my shelf.
But I think I'm growing out of this way of appreciating culture. I don't need this book. And it's not even entertaining me. I thought it would be at least as fun as Gabriel Garcia Marquez... It is said that Cortazar is one of Latin America's best authors.... the book, well, it's interesting, as a work of experimental fiction - there are 2 ways to read it, either straight through from chapter 1 to 56, or according to an algorithm, following the instruction at the end of each chapter to know which chapter to read first, 1-98-2-105-78-3, etc - interesting, but the prose itself exhudes self-indulgent narccism and ennui, telling the story of decandant Parisian 60s hipsters that I can't be bothered to care the slightest about... who gives a fuck if Horacio and La Maga sort of like each other in a limp sort of whatever way, and engage in elaborate games so that they might or might not run into each other on the street and then go have sex in a nearby hotel? Who cares if their arty friends argue about Klee versus Mondrian? I haven't read anything so boring and soul-numbing since stumbling my way through The Plague by Camus 20 years ago...
If I had nothing else to read, or if I wasn't working hard on my life, it wouldn't be a big deal. But I have much more important stuff to read, stuff about how to refashion my outlook on work and living, stuff about civilization and love and relationships and psyche... so I think I'll put 'Hopscotch' down and leapfrog over it... sorry Cortazar. Somehow, evidently, Marcos (may have) read you and become an interesting thinker and writer despite your work, not because of it.
about a month ago i read a novel by John Burdett called Bangkok 8. I really liked it a lot. Before I tell you about it I'll tell you what interests and concerns in my life recently are probably what made me like it, and you can decide if you have enough similar interests to also enjoy the book. Lately I've been thinking a lot about: buddhism, karma, fate, ethics, sex and love. I've also always had an interest in travelling, in other cultures, in the culture of the far east and its interaction with the west, and in sex work, the morality of sex work, and the sex industry of southeast asia. I've also always liked, as a guilty pleasure, the mystery novel, but usually not exceedingly so unless a book really plays with and experiments with that genre.
Bangkok 8 has and does all those things. It's really an unusual story. It follows a detective named Sonchai in Bangkok who is the son of a Thai prostitute and a western man who is unknown to him. He and his partner are devout buddhists who were sent to the city by the head of their monastery who ordered them to become cops to balance their karma. They're the only non-corrupt cops in the whole city. The book starts with an American marine who they're investigating being murdered in a very unusual way, and Sonchai's partner is killed too. With the help of the American Embassy and the FBI, he goes about trying to investigate the crime and seek vengence for his partner.
That sets the stage. But along the way of solving the mystery, the book is full of deeply profound and also cleverly humorous commentary on all the subjects I mentioned above and more. The main character is a deeply wise but also jaded and streetwise and cynical character. He calls his partner an "arhat" which is a buddhist word for someone who is enlightened, but chooses to stay in the material world to help others instead of floating off into nirvana. He has the interesting supernatural power of being able to see someone's past incarnations, which helps him solve the crime at several points and also relate to various people he meets along the way, like the horny female FBI agent Kimberly Jones who is assigned to help him. As the story progresses one learns that Sonchai himself may be just shy of being an arhat, held back by issues from his past and present. Burdett uses the noir murder mystery form to adroitly explore a variety of contemporary and age old topics. Meanwhile the style of the writing is totally entertaining, hard-boiled, noirish, and witty.
A few favorite quotes:
The Lord Buddha taught 2500 years ago that there is no impunity. In more elegant language than I can muster he warned that you always pay for pussy, one way or the other. For example, if we go back to Jones' room at the Hilton, one of 2 things could happen: She could enjoy it more than I or I could enjoy it more than she. The keener one immediately becomes the slave of the other, with disasterous consequences for both.
Understand that I'm not quoting that because I believe it or think it's particularly wise. It just demonstrates the sort of collisions of worlds and ideas that Burdett explores. Sonchai thinks he's so wise, and in a way he is, but as his wisdom smashes against his own feelings and hang-ups we see he's still learning and figuring important stuff out.
and there's this, where a Russian pimp and drug dealer is talking about Buddhism to Sonchai and Kimberly, who answers (in the second paragraph):
Guatama Buddha was the greatest salesman in history... he was selling nothing. That's what nirvana means: nothing. As a cure for the great cosmic disaster most of us call life, he prescribed a riguorous course of meditation and perfect living over any number of lifetimes, with nothing as its final reward. D'you think anyone on Madison Avenue could sell that? But the whole Indian subcontinent bought it at the time. Today there are more than 300 million Buddhists in the world and growing.
...but there's a play on words here, isn't there? He was only selling nothing if you understand nothing in a certain sense. Nothing to a Buddhist is also everything, since only nothing has any reality.
The other thing that makes me like the book is that I found it totally randomly. it was just sitting in a cafe and i had nothing to read while i sat there so i looked at it and it looked awesome so i took it. Was it fate?
I've been reading a lot of really great fiction lately. Perhaps I'm so disappointed in the latest nonfiction book (I'll write more about that later) I was reading that by comparison I'm overjoyed at these novels.
I'm now 2 books behind on reviewing, and the one on the top of the stack is Ruth Ozeki's "All Over Creation." I was loaned this book by a friend after having a chat with her about The Fountain at the Center of the World, which I wrote about over 2 years ago(!) on this blog. And indeed, the 2 are very similar, in that they deal with modern activism, the struggle against corporate hegemony, and they both deal with family.
Ozeki's 2003 novel centers on 3 characters or groups of characters that all converge on a little farming town in Idaho. The real main figure of the book is Yumi, or Yummy, Japanese-American daughter of Lloyd and Momoko. Their neighbors Cass and Will round out this first group. Then there's Elliot, a PR flack who does work spindoctoring for big agribusiness and who used to be Yumi's high school history teacher 25 years ago. Finally there are the Seeds of Resistance, what one might call an affiinity group of eco-activists who travel around the country in their customized motorhome, the Spudnik, doing anti-biotech actions and teaching themselves and others more about sustainable agriculture.
Yumi ran away from home when she was 15 when she had an affair with her teacher Elliot that ended with an abortion. She never came back until 25 years later, when the book opens and when her parents are both having health problems. Meanwhile Elliot is sent back to Idaho to investigate activists mobilizing against his client, a big pesticide company called Cyanco (that is obviously a fictionalization of Monsanto - they even have a pesticide product called GroundUp).
The Seeds, meanwhile, are indeed on their way to Idaho, not only to mess with Cyanco, but also to meet Lloyd and Momoko, who have become unexpected heroes. Lloyd's main occupation had been potato farmer all his life, but on the side he and his wife started a seed company with very old-fashioned, natural ideals. The Seeds show up to learn from the wisdom of curmudgeonly Lloyd, who eventually becomes their ally, while Yumi is trying to figure out what to do with him and his heart problems, along with Momoko's Alzheimer's.
The book gets very complicated and fascinating, and I won't go into all the details. There's intrigue, there's sex, there's humor, there's lots of great references to watershed events and concepts in recent anti-globalization struggles (like with Fountain at the Center of the World, it ends with the activists going off to Seattle for the big 1999 WTO protest).
However, in addition to all that I think what got to me about the book is the personal and family aspect of it. I kept thinking that if you replaced potatoes with corn and moved it to Iowa it would have still worked almost as-is in my home state. My parents weren't farmers and I grew up in a small city, but from my earliest childhood farming was in the air, as well as the sadness and risk and heartache of farming. The news of Iowa farmers getting their land foreclosed and then some shooting themselves and their families are some of my oldest recollections from the media. Plus my stepfather went back to Nebraska to help farm the family land every summer, often taking me and my brothers along.
Add to that the facts that my grandparents recently died, my grandmother with Alzheimer's, and that my mom has really been hit hard by the process of dealing with this and lots of other dying relatives and friends and her own health problems, and that I sometimes see my self as sort of a prodigal son in relation to my home state and family, and you can probably see how this book was pretty heavy for me. I will admit that I got choked up quite a bit while reading it.
I guess that's enough to say, really, other than: it's an excellent book; It's sort of over the top, almost mythic, in how it portrays activists, but maybe that's what is needed right now. And yet it's also extremely real and down to earth about its characters and the interactions they have with each other. I was really impressed and touched by this book. Highly recommended.
The second novel by Leslie Marmon Silko, published in 1991, Almanac of the Dead has become one of my favorite fiction books ever. It's similar, in a general way, to The Fountain at the Center of the World, which I read and mentioned almost 2 years ago, in that both are touching personal stories set against a backdrop of sweeping historical and geopolitical forces and changes.
This is a book that's been sort of circulating and getting recommended amongst friends of mine here in Tucson, and everyone that's read it loves it. One reason for this is that much of the book takes place in Tucson and the surrounding area and has lots of local lore, but it also is chock-full of ideas that my progressive friends and I are already aware of and really interested in. These include such diverse issues as environmental destruction, water scarcity, sprawl, war profiteering, the homeless, indigenous land rights, racism, the border, corruption, colonialism, and just the general spiritual bankruptcy of european/western culture.
The novel is a big sprawling read (740 pages) that contains many different characters, plot threads, and places. Some of the threads intersect directly, some only refer to each other, and some never come together, or are just historical background. Some major characters/situations are: Lecha and Zeta, 2 Yaqui Indian twin sisters who live on a ranch on the outskirts of Tucson. In their youth Lecha was given by her grandmother a bundle of ancient notebooks called The Almanac of the Dead that have been handed down through many generations of indigenous people in Mexico. The Almanac tells the story of these people, who fled from the south of mexico centuries ago to escape "the destroyers," sorcerers who practiced blood sacrifice and became the Aztec rulers. The Almanac is also a history of the arrival of the europeans in the new world and a prophecy foretelling their departure from it, and the events of the prophecy seem to be starting to play out.
Lecha hires another main character, Seese, a coke addict from San Diego, to help her transcribe the Almanac into a computer, because Lecha is getting old. Seese has come to Tucson to find Lecha, because Lecha has psychic powers that allow her to find murder victims, and Seese wants to find out if her kidnapped baby has died. Meanwhile Zeta and Farro, Lecha's son, are arms and drug smugglers along with some other local Yaquis.
Down in Chiapas another subplot involves a corrupt general and his business partner who are getting guns from the U.S. They are worried about a recent upsurge of indigenous restlessness in the region. La Escapia is a Mayan woman who is part of a secret army of poor villagers all over Chiapas preparing for an armed rebellion. (remember, this was written at least 3 years before the Zapatista uprising!) She goes to Mexico City to attend a secret Cuban "freedom school" that teaches about Marxism in exchange for providing arms and weapons for insurgents around Latin America. The mayans don't care about Cuba or Marx, but they pretend they do just to get weapons. All they care about is taking back their land. The ideology is just bullshit to them.
Meanwhile back in Tucson an East Coast mafia family is starting to move in on Zeta's smuggling operation. They work with a corrupt senator and a clandestine agent from the CIA to smuggle arms into southern Mexico and Central America in exchange for cocaine. They're also involved in shady real estate development and building huge water-sucking suburbs, buying off judges to head off the environmental lawsuits filed against them. A lover of the wife has a "biomaterial" business that secretly harvests organs and plasma from homeless people and Indians, but 2 of his employees are organizing a Homeless Army in Tucson and around the country, waiting for the right time to rise up.
Yet another meanwhile, Seese's ex-boyfriend, an artist named David, is in with some rich racist drug and porn dealers from Argentina and Columbia named Beaufrey and Serlo. David kidnaps his and Seese's baby and heads down to Serlo's ranch in Columbia with Beaufrey, but Beaufrey gets jealous and has the baby kidnapped from David and makes it look like Seese did it. During all this Serlo is working on a crazy post-apocalypse eugenics scheme to preserve the "sangre pura" master race in sealed biospheres at his ranch.
You start to see how complex the web that Silko weaves is. It's really addictive reading, infused with a dark ambiance, great historical anecdotes and references to the injustices of the past, as well as tons of moral ambiguity - virtually every major character, with maybe 2 or 3 exceptions, is either a loser, a depraved asshole, or some kind of greedy conartist or corrupt official. The narrative hops around the Western hemisphere and over the last 500 years, and my one big criticism is that it doesn't seem to tie stuff together quite well enough at the end - it could have gone on for another 200 pages and I would have been even happier.
At any rate, I highly recommend this book to anybody who is interested in sort of a people's history of Tucson, interested in any of the issues I've mentioned, or if you just want a rollicking adventure story full of drugs, guns, sex, blood, and politics. I guess you could say it's sort of a hybrid of William S. Burroughs or Pynchon, and Howard Zinn or Eduardo Galleano, with a touch of DeLillo and a dash of Edward Abbey. What more could one ask for?