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Archive for January, 2015

. . . if Scott Walker gets his way.  Walker is asking the Wisconsin university system to take a $300 million cut.  Walker is of course the uber-Rethug governor who famously broke the public workers’ union there.  Charlie Pierce calls Walker “the goggle-eyed homunculus hired by Koch Industries to manage their midwest facility formerly known as the state of Wisconsin.”

The proposed cut is not new news:  universities, and education in general, have been cut wherever Rethugs run things.  The really scary part of Walker’s proposal is that he wants to turn control of the university system over to the Board of Regents.  This control includes things like management of employee conditions–ie, terms of employment, promotion and tenure.

Now in Wisconsin, which was a fairly enlightened state before Walker got hold of it, such things are governed by state laws that have been in place forever.  Walker’s plan would invalidate these laws, leaving protection of faculty livelihoods in the hands of the Board of Regents.  Guess who appoints the members of the BOR.  Convenient, huh.

The University of Wisconsin is among the ten or twelve best universities in the country.  Walker’s plan, if adopted, will speedily transform that great school into another diploma mill like, pardon the comparison, ASU.  In such schools large enrollments and high graduation rates are the prime directives.  Actual education of students ranks far down on this list of priorities.

Woe is us.

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Stephen King’s “Insomnia”

40351-Insomnia Critics hate, hate, hate Insomnia (1994), mostly because they think it is too long.  Like Goldilocks, I thought it was just right.

If I were to make a critical assessment of this novel, I’d say that it is actually two novels.  The first half is a charming introduction to a group of old folks who live on a quiet street in Derry, Maine.  The “Old Crocks,” as they call themselves, walk to the park, play chess, josh one another, and discuss the lives of their younger neighbors.  King was in his early ‘forties when he wrote this book;  it is such an accurate (and loving) account of old age that he must have had access to an older informant.  Or else he is a far more sensitive novelist than his critics are willing to acknowledge.

The second half is more typical King-stuff.  His hero, septuagenarian Ralph Roberts, suffers from insomnia that grows increasingly more serious.  By the time his sleep is reduced to a couple of hours per night, Ralph has begun to see things–people and animals have auras, and the world seems to be populated by beings that are sentient but not human.  It turns out that these beings, who are apparently contemporary manifestations of the Greek fates, exist on another plane, a plane that is revealed to those who can’t sleep.  Once he gets access to this level of seeing, Ralph discovers a plot that, if successful, will kill or injure many of the citizens of Derry.

In the course of unraveling his intertwined narratives King has a lot to say about, of all things, the politics of abortion and the status of women and children in American culture.  Despite his white malenitude, he gets much of this right.

The second half of the novel also unveils a complex metaphysics wherein the world consists of various realities or planes which are poised between the Purposeful and the Random.  That sounds sort of hokey, I know, but who’s to say that God and Satan are any less fantastic as metaphysical notions?  Apparently this belief system also undergirds King’s magnum opus, The Dark Tower, on which I will report if I can get through the seven novels of which it consists.

Having read several novels and short stories about the fictional city of Derry, I am discovering that King regularly plants cross-references;  a major character from an earlier piece may put in a brief appearance in a later one, and so on.  This lends a nice jolt of recognition to a “constant reader,” as King calls those of us he addresses in his prefaces.

I highly recommend Insomnia.  There are no scary monsters, and its characters are compellingly written.  In order to enjoy it thoroughly, however, you must be willing to take the leisurely approach that the first half of the narrative requires.

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barack-obama-800I suppose you’ve heard by now that “mainstream” media personages are upset that Obama talked with a group of You-Tube personalities.  He did so because said personalities have millions of watchers.  Also too, their audience is mostly young.  Obama tried to get the kids interested in politics, even trotting out simple but clear definitions (“how we live together”).  Whoa!  You mean that You-Tube itself is political?  Who’da thunk!

In all the mainstream moaning about Obama’s doing something that is “beneath the dignity of the office,” some commentators seemed chiefly to be upset by the green lipstick worn by You-Tube star Glozell Green.   Ironically, some of those complaints issued from bright red lips whose owners seemed utterly oblivious to the hypocrisy painted right there on their faces.

 

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They don’t notice when you come home.

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If you’re lucky, your arrival might be met with opened eyes.  Briefly.

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Stephen King: A Prologue

Eugene-Kaik-stephen-kingCurry, Spacek, King, Nicholson, Bates

If you are at all attuned to pop culture, you will recognize the characters in this portrait even though you have never opened one of Stephen King’s novels or seen the movies made from them.  On the left are Tim Curry, costumed as It from the novel of the same name and Sissy Spacek as/from Carrie.  On the right are Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance from Stanley Kubrick’s version of The Shining and Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes, Misery’s rabid romance fan.  King himself occupies the center, which nicely symbolizes the balance between his earlier novels that rely upon the machinery of horror-fantasy and later works that meditate on human shortcomings such as alcoholism or greed.

King has written over fifty novels and produced several collections of novellas and short stories along with a few screen- and teleplays.  This is an astonishing feat, given that he apparently does not covertly employ a stable of co-authors as do other prolific pop authors such as James Patterson.  Moreover, King’s novels are LARGE–The Stand (revised and expanded) amounts to 1150 pages in paperback.  For context:  my paperback copy of Dickens’ Bleak House contains 740 pages while Melville requires only 625 pages to unfold Moby Dick’s revenge on the crew of the Pequod.

In 1974, King’s first publisher was so dubious about Carrie that they paid him the un-princely upfront sum of $4000.  Now, however, his books become bestsellers immediately upon their appearance.  Given that they most likely option in six figures, and adding in royalties (15%?  does King settle for 15% as merely mortal writers do?) he has become a very rich man.  This despite the fact that critics hate his stuff–apparently because his fictions are (a) popular and (b) large.  And maybe (c) because they are easy to read.

I read a lot of early King when it was originally published.  His books appealed to me then precisely because they were not at all like the stuff I had to read as a professional duty (Aristotle, Bourdieu, Derrida, Zizek, amen).  Not that I didn’t learn a lot from from that more disciplined reading.  But it’s a hell of a lot easier to spend a Saturday afternoon curled up on the sofa with a moral tale about an evil clown scaring the bejeebus out of little kids than it is to figure out what the hell a “supplement” is.  (Yikes!  I just realized that the evil clown in It is a supplement!  Now that’s scary!).

While King’s later works are still scary, they have become more opaque.  So today there are lots of cribs available that help readers make their through King’s universe.  Most of these center on his magnum opus-y homage to Tolkien, The Dark Tower saga.  I haven’t tackled this yet (seven King-sized volumes!).  King has also attracted a series of lower-brow critics and dissertation-writers, and I’ve been able to read some of their stuff in the last couple of weeks, thanks to my digital access to a university library.  With this help I’m working my way through King’s oeuvre once again.  I’ve found that King’s novels are still thoroughly absorbing.

I started with some old favorites:  ‘Salem’s Lot (1975) and The Stand (1978; 1990).  I like these works better than King’s more mature and sleeker novels such as Mr. Mercedes (2014).  I’m not sure quite why– reviews will follow, if the crick don’t rise.  In the meantime the web is full of reviews of King’s various novels if you are interested–there’s a comprehensive set of competent reviews at the Guardian, for example, if you don’t want to wait for me to get my butt in gear:  http://www.theguardian.com/books/series/rereading-stephen-king.

At this point in my reading, I’m willing to generalize this far:  Stephen King is a moral philosopher.  I don’t mean that in the sense that one might say Aquinas is a moral philosopher, someone who lays down dicta about what’s good/bad when, where, and with whom.  Rather, King is concerned with what I’ll call “little evil” and “big evil.” “Little evil” is everyday human failings like greed or blindness to the suffering of others.  “Big evil” exists on the cosmic scale that readers expect from the horror genre.  Sometimes King couches the cosmic battle between good and evil in Christian terms, as happens inconsistently in The Stand.  Needful Things (1991) traffics in both big and little evil:  an itinerant shopkeeper (who may be a devil or demon of some kind) sets the greed and desires of the town’s citizens against one another.  Often, however, the big evils in King’s universe appear without ideological or religious trappings;  they are metaphysical, if you will, as in It, or extraterrestrial, as in The TommyKnockers (1988) or Dreamcatcher (2000)In these works King posits a real bad day for his characters and then follows them to see what happens.

At first glance King’s interest in morality might seem to be a fairly unsatisfactory lure for contemporary readers–particularly younger ones.  On the other hand, that most moral of fictions, Pilgrim’s Progress, was once a best-seller, and its heyday occurred during a period even more turbulent than our own.  Clue?

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Taking In the Trash

the-stand-image-2-will-josh-boone-s-reboot-of-king-s-the-stand-make-the-gradeThe other day I took a rare trip to town so I could use the university liberry.  After I finished there, I stopped by Bookmans.  I had about 20 bucks worth of credit that I needed to use before the receipt disintegrated (that tells you how often I get into town).  I thought vaguely that I might use the credit to nourish the Stephen King fetish I seem to have developed in recent weeks.

Since I retired, and hence am no longer obliged to make sense, my interests have bounced from here to there with no discernible logic.  I diligently pursue Skyrim for a couple of weeks, determined that my character will complete every damned quest in that game.  Then I get interested in sewing for a few weeks, and then I start to read books I’ve owned forever.  I have no idea why I started rereading King, of all writers.  I mean, there is plenty of Austen and Melville sitting on my bookshelves, too.

When I worried to Trep about my intellectual waywardness, she was gracious enough to say that my interests often seem to end up going somewhere useful.  So it was that as I stood in front of a huge collection of used copies of King’s novels at Bookmans, tattered credit receipt in hand, I wondered how a marathon reading of his work could ever veer in the direction of usefulness.  And then the goddess intervened in the person of a fellow who identified himself as a chief book buyer for the store, asking if I needed help.

In the course of our very pleasant conversation, he remarked that King’s status among literary critics had risen since the 1990s.  Wow!  Last I heard, King and his ilk were anathema in the halls of literary academe.  Here, for example, is Harold Bloom’s scathing put-down:

“The decision to give the National Book Foundation’s annual award for ‘distinguished contribution’ to Stephen King is extraordinary, another low in the shocking process of dumbing down our cultural life. I’ve described King in the past as a writer of penny dreadfuls, but perhaps even that is too kind. He shares nothing with Edgar Allan Poe. What he is is an immensely inadequate writer on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph, book-by-book basis. The publishing industry has stooped terribly low to bestow on King a lifetime award that has previously gone to the novelists Saul Bellow and Philip Roth and to playwright Arthur Miller. By awarding it to King they recognize nothing but the commercial value of his books, which sell in the millions but do little more for humanity than keep the publishing world afloat.”  (http://www.boston.com/news/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2003/09/24/dumbing_down_american_readers/)

Obviously, Harold Bloom is a literary snob.  I might be a snob too if I had been born to the sort of privilege that handed me a lifetime sinecure on the faculty at Yale and allowed me to look down my nose at authors who are neither male nor scratching out weighty tomes that nobody except Bloom wants to read.  For privileged readers like Bloom, much is at stake in protecting the canon of so-called “great authors,” not the least of which is their own supposedly exalted class status and their juicy tenures at ivy league universities where they are not required to do much of anything but bluster.  Such privileged old farts seldom teach, because they are allowed to leave that messy task to their overwhelmed graduate students.

No, I’m not bitter about the American academy.  Whatever gave you that idea?

Bloom is not alone in his nitpickery.  Here is somebody named Dwight Allen, of whom I cheerfully confess I had never heard before I undertook some research for this post:  “Among the things I hope for when I open a book of fiction is that each sentence I read will be right and true and beautiful, that the particular music of those sentences will bring me a pleasure I wouldn’t be able to find the exact equivalent of in another writer, that I will be continually surprised by what a particular writer reveals about particular human beings and the world they inhabit. A great book of fiction will lead me toward some fresh understanding of humanity, and toward joy.” (http://www.salon.com/2012/07/06/my_stephen_king_problem_salpart/).  Allen finds none of this in King’s work.

Well, fine.  Later on in this essay, Allen opines that when he turned fifty, he decided that “ninety-nine percent” of the books he read “would be devoted to certifiably literary fiction.”  He was then, he remarks, “at a point in my life where I was calculating how many books I was going to be able to read before I came down with dementia or died.”

How unutterably dreary.  I’ve got twenty years on Allen, and as a consequence of my advanced age, I too am concerned with calculating how much I can get done before I succumb to death or dementia.  But damned if I’m going to spend that time “looking for some fresh understanding of humanity.”  I get plenty of such understanding while watching the nightly news–not to mention all the years I’ve lived through.  So what I intend to do before death or dementia claim me is to have all the fun I can find or invent.

Case in point:  when I began this post, I planned to write about my present assessment of King’s work.  But I didn’t get there.  Next time, maybe.

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The Skirmish over Selma

Freedom-March-Selma-to-Montgomery-1965I mentioned in an earlier post that a kerfuffle has blown up over what, exactly, President Lyndon B. Johnson did or did not do to discourage civil rights activists from undertaking a voting rights march in 1965.  Apparently, LBJ is depicted in the film Selma as saying something like “not right now” when MLK and other leaders (pictured in my earlier post) suggested that voting rights be placed on the immediate agenda.

I hasten to say that I have not seen the film.  I did see a clip from it on Chris Matthews’ show, and you can watch that at his website.  Until I do see the film, the musings that follow are of course only conjectural.

This tiny bit of dialogue–“not right now”–has stirred considerable controversy.  Right-wingers are chortling gleefully, delighted to see a Democratic president take shit (I refuse to cite their drivel–I’m sure you can find plenty of it with the merest flick of your Google).  Matthews, who is supposedly a liberal, literally blew his stack over the notion that LBJ could in any way be seen as standing in the way of civil rights.  To justify his position he called on Johnson apologist Joseph Califano and some guy from the Johnson library who blustered and fumed about the outrage of it all.

James Peterson, professor of African-American Studies at LeHigh, was also there, apparently in order to explain the director’s choices to the assembled white guys.  Peterson was able to make an important point before they shouted him down:  the film’s director has said she wanted to make a film about the civil rights movement that centered on its actual heroes, and not on some white savior.  (For the type-locality example of white-savior cinema, see Mississippi Burning, whose hero is an FBI man played by Gene Hackman.  The FBI!  who secretly taped MLK, who mostly stood around with its hands in its pockets while black people were kidnapped and murdered, and who planted a Klan informer who took part in the murder of Viola Liuzzo).

Let’s bring a little actual history to bear.  According to Taylor Branch, “When King pushed for legislation to secure Negro voting rights in the south, Johnson embraced that goal for his administration but deflected it beyond 1965” (547).  John Lewis, who was a member of the planning committee of SNCC and a participant in all three marches from Selma to Montgomery, writes as follows:  “Plans for an SCLC move on Selma were already being drawn up that December [1964] when Dr. King met with President Johnson. .  . the two men discussed the need for a voting rights act, and Johnson said in so many words that is was just impossible.  Not right now, the president said” (313).

If these prize-winning sources are to be trusted, it seems to me the bit of the film’s dialogue in question is historically accurate.  Nor does it necessarily misrepresent Johnson’s commitment to civil rights.

LBJ’s hesitation is understandable if we think like politicians.  He had just overseen the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act through Congress, and if he did indeed say “not right now,” he no doubt meant something like “I’ve twisted a lot of arms about as far as they can be twisted right now.  Give me a breather.”  In fact, as Lewis points out, LBJ’s administration was indeed putting together a voting rights act at that point.  But “after the upheavals of 1964 the President felt the country was tired of civil rights, that the American people needed a rest from the subject.”

So why are so many panties in a twist over this bit of cinematic truth-telling?  Could it be that guys like Matthews and Califano aren’t quite ready to abandon white-savior history?  Hmm.

And just as a reminder what was (and still is?) at stake in this conversation:

edmund-pettus-bridge-in-selma_originalTaylor Branch, Pillar of Fire:  American in the King Years 1963-65 (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1998).

John Lewis (with Michael D’Orso), Walking With the Wind:  A Memoir of the Movement (New York:  Harcourt Brace, 1998).

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