Books postsWednesday August 01, 2012
Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
My friend Mark F. used to tell the following story during our days working in the University Book Store warehouse in the 1990s.
Apparently Gore Vidal was on the Phil Donahue Show one time (according to IMDb.com, it would have to be this episode from 1974), and the discussion got around to God and Jesus and yadda yadda, and someone from the audience, a kindly woman, stood up and asked Mr. Vidal, author of “Myra Breckenridge” and eventually “Live from Golgotha,” whether he had ever read the Bible. He responded that, yes, he had read it many times. An even more sincere look crossed her face and she asked, “Yes, but have you ever read it with your heart?” Mark, who bears a slight resemblance in appearance and manner to Dr. Niles Crane, Frasier's brother on “Frasier,” would then do his masterful Gore Vidal response. “My dear,” Mark would say, “I'm afraid that that is hardly the proper organ with which to read.”
As Gore Vidal did with the Bible, so I've done with Gore Vidal. Over the years, reading his books, I've found myself highlighting this or that sentence, or paragraph, or page, which I felt was funny, or sharp, or helped explain some part of the world. That's what I've peppered the blog with today: the stuff I've highlighted over the years. These aren't his most famous quotes; they're probably not his best. But they're the ones that struck me or tickled me as I happened to read with pen or pencil in hand.
I disagreed with him a lot, too, of course, more so as he aged. He came to believe that Pearl Harbor had been a vast conspiracy to get us involved in World War II. I.e., FDR knew the attack was coming and did nothing. Post-9/11, same thing. Bush knew. He became one of those guys. In a 1998 piece for Vanity Fair, Vidal revealed too much sympathy for Timothy McVeigh and not enough for his victims. For years, Vidal suggested a new constitutional convention to replace the worn-out one we've been using.
My disagreements with him even reached my subconscious. From my 1996 dream journal:
Gore Vidal and I are talking in my apartment, and he picks up a book of his essays that I'm reading. Initially I worry I might have scribbled offensive lines in the margins but he doesn't find anything. We talk of other authors and other books, and he asks if I have them, but I worry about the notes scribbled in the margins of those books, too, and don't bother to show him.
I felt bad that I didn't read more of his novels, but the ones I did read (“Lincoln,” “Washington, D.C.,” “Burr”) I didn't like much. His personality didn't come through. I know he railed against the state of the modern novel, its smallness, to go along with the size of its audience. He kept argung that the literature that lasts tends to focus on great men and great events, which is why he wrote about ancient Rome, and Jesus, and the United States of America: from the founding fathers to Washington, D.C., post-World War II, when, as he reminded us again and again, the great Republic died and was replaced by the National Security State. He even gave us an exact date for this replacement: February 27, 1947.
I wound up interviewing him, by fax, and meeting him, at Town Hall, and reviewing for The Seattle Times a few of his later books, none of which thrilled. But the essays remain necessary reading. A final quote, from “How I Do What I Do If Not Why,” which appeared in The New York Review of Books in 1988:
Writers and writing no longer matter much anywhere in freedom's land. Mistuh Emerson, he dead. Our writers are just entertainers, and not all that entertaining either. We have lost the traditonal explainer, examiner, prophet.
Yes, we have.
Gore Vidal (1925-2012)
The Novel for the 99%: Max Barry's 'Company'
Just spent a week on Kauai, Hawaii, a great vacation I'll write about it in the coming days.
But for now a book recommendation: Max Barry's “Company,” which I read during my first two days on Kauai. It's not only the novel for anyone who has suffered a dead-end, meaningless job with idiotic managers—which means 99% of us—it's also the novel most of us who suffered dead-end, meaningless jobs with idiotic managers wished we'd written. In the early nineties, I must have written five short stories/novellas on customer-service/bookstore work but they were all a little too bitter and not nearly clever enough. Barry's wit outweighs all. He pushes the bounds. He makes the absurdity funny. He also makes it both logical and, at the same time, more absurd.
Here's a sample. Sydney, an awful manager and a worse person, is in the act of firing her personal assistant, Megan:
“Second, you don't show any teamwork.”
“But I work alone! I'll work with people if you want! I'd love to work with people! I'm stuck by myself!”
Sydney folds her hands on her desk. “Well, there's no point in complaining now.”
“Then ... why are you telling me these things?”
“It's part of the feedback process. I'm showing you what you need to work on to improve.”
“So if I improve--”
“Not here. You can't improve here. You're being fired, Megan. This is just the process we go through. It's really for your benefit. A little gratitude wouldn't be out of place.”
Megan's mouth works. What finally comes out is: “Thank you.”
“You're welcome,” Sydney says. “Anyway, those two categories hurt your score. But the clincher was your failure to achieve any goals.”
“Well, you didn't have any.” Sydney picks up a silver pen and waggles it. Little daggers of reflected sunlight flash into Megan's eyes. “During your last evaluation, we were meant to agree on goals for you, but we never did. So where it says, 'Goals Accomplished,' I had to tick 'None.'”
“I would have accomplished goals if you'd set some!”
“Well, you might have. It's hard to say.”
“How can you sack me for not accomplishing goals I never had?”
“You don't want me to say you accomplished goals when you didn't, do you?”
Then there's this passage, spoken by the CEO of the company, Klausman, which surely resonates in this presidential year when Republicans are going on about “job creators”:
“You're probably too young to remember, Jones, but there was a time when a man filled your gas tank for you. A boy carried your groceries to your car. There was a time when you hardly ever stood in line, not outside of a government office. But labor is a source of cost, so companies externalized it. They, as you say, shat it out. And those costs landed exactly where they belonged: on their customers.”
“And on their remaining staff.”
“Quite so. Quite so. Hence: 'Doing more with less.'”
In a masterstroke, the novel is dedicated thus: “For Hewlett-Packard.”
Essential Freud by Badcock, and Other Stories
All of the textbook/author combos below are legitimate. They were culled from my days in the 1990s working in the textbook department at University Book Store in Seattle, Wash.
- Essential Freud by Christopher Badcock
- Organization Theory and Design by Robert Daft
- Basic Human Genetics by Mange and Mange
- Immigrant Voices by Thomas Dublin
- Introduction to Advertising and Promotion by Belch and Belch
- The Psychology of Blacks by Joseph L. White
- Microeconomics by Robert Pindyck
Apologies for all the dick jokes but Essential Freud would understand.
Book Review: I Never Had It Made by Jackie Robinson
During the baseball strike of 1994-95 I read a lot of books on baseball, then wrote reviews of what I'd read. I did that all the time back then. I wanted to remember why I felt something rather than just what I felt. I suppose it's led to what I do here. This review, which I came upon while researching potentional Jackie Robinson Day posts, was written in April 1995, just as Judge Sotomayor was telling the boys of summer to shake hands and play ball already...
Don’t purchase I Never Had It Made, Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, expecting to read a lot about baseball. He’s retired before we’re halfway in. The 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers are given less than a page. I understand he wants to be known as more than just a ballplayer, but, let’s face it, working at Chock Full O'Nuts isn’t exactly why Jackie Robinson is an important figure in American history.
And where’s the famous fire? Recounting the race-baiting from the dugout of the 1947 Philadelphia Phillies, which included racial epithets, black cats thrown onto the field, and the Phillies players leveling their bats at Jackie and making machine gun noises, Jackie comments thus: “It was an incredibly childish display of bad will.” That same year, Dodgers pitcher Hugh Casey, losing a poker game, said to Jackie, “‘You know what I used to do down in Georgia when I ran into bad luck?.... I used to go out and find me the biggest, blackest nigger woman I could find and rub her teats to change my luck.’” The reader expects an explosion but it’s as if Jackie, the writer, is still trapped in 1947, and turns the other cheek. “I don't believe there was a man in that game, including me, who thought that I could take that,” Jackie writes. “Finally, I made myself turn to the dealer and told him to deal the cards.” Really? That’s it? What was your relationship like with your teammate after that? How could you play on the same team? Did you seethe watching him pitch? Anything?
Not only is little said about his baseball life, but little is said about how his baseball life affected African Americans. Maybe he worried such a chapter would seem self-serving.
Instead we get advertisements for Chock Full O’ Nuts:
Soon Bill Black was in the restaurant business offering a limited number of rapidly prepared items at reasonable prices and with swift and polite service.
We get press releases for politicians:
The Nelson Rockefeller personal charm and charisma had now become legendary.
We get the bourgeois existence of Jackie and Rachel Robinson. They buy a house in Connecticut. Their children have problems with fame and drugs. Rachel, trying to establish her own identity, denies that she's married to Jackie Robinson, which so worries her she consults a psychologist.
For the most part Jackie seems to be justifying his post-baseball actions. Why did he support Nixon in 1960? Why did he support Nelson Rockefeller? How can he live in Connecticut? Wasn't he involved in a takeover at Freedom Bank?
Perhaps this is why the book seems unfairly weighted towards his post-baseball life. His baseball life needs no such justification.
--April 18, 1995
Searching for Ralph Ellison's Quote
You remember “Almost Live”? Good show. Nancy Guppy was a regular, and funny. Last year at opening night of the Seattle International Film Festival at McCaw Hall, I ran into her. I was with a group of mostly women, I believe, suited up and wearing sunglasses, so not my usual raggedy self, when I saw her by the front stairs and pointed her out. She noticed being pointed out, and I smiled, and she came up to me. I think she thought I was someone else. Her disappointment when it turned out to be just me was muted but palpable, but, as things go, she's now a friend ... on Facebook. Just that. She wouldn't know me from Adam Wahlberg.
The other day, on Facebook, she posted this:
“Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.”
I immediately loved it. I asked her where it was from but she didn't know. So I searched it out in 2012 fashion.
The first Google search result is from an ad-heavy site called Brainy Quote, which sandwiches Ellison's thought between two similar thoughts from F. Scott Fitzgerald and Anais Nin, but of course it attributes nothing. Such is the way these days. You can click on his name and find out that he's an AUTHOR, that he's AMERICAN, when he was BORN and when he DIED, but the quote is just there to be quoted, along with other Ralph Ellison quotes plucked from the obscurity of, what, a book, and made to live forever here. And now here's an ad from Google.
The second and third results are from Good Reads, which at least tells us the quote is from “Invisible Man” (rather than, say, “Shadow and Act”), but provides no context. We do find out, however, that 1,190 people “liked” it. Which is good enough for me.
Linguaspectrum.com, fourth, expands upon the quote. On its page, “92 Quotes About Defeat,” it gives us a slightly fuller version:
“America is woven of many strands; I would recognize them and let it so remain. It's winner take nothing that is the great truth of our country or of any country. Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat. Our fate is to become one, and yet many - This in not prophecy, but description.”
The fifth result, from the ad-heavy Bookrags.com, which uses those awful double-underlined pop-up ad-links to specific words, finally gives us context. Ralph Ellison's quote is from the epilogue to “Invisible Man,” pg. 577, which does no good for me since my Modern Library edition only goes to 439 pages. But at least we know where it's from now. It's no longer invisible, you could say.
But how about that line right before the plucked version?
It's winner take nothing that is the great truth of our country or of any country.
Tell that to Bill Gates' house on Lake Washington.
I finally found the quote in my edition of “Invisible Man,” by the way. It's at the bottom of pg. 435 of the Modern Library edition and part of an argument for diversity and against conformity. “Must I strive toward colorlessness?” he asks, among other things. I actually underlined (not doubly so) “winner take nothing” when I read this back in college, but for what reason I can't image. Because I thought it was profound? Because I disagreed? I hope I disagreed.
Originally I was going to tie Nancy Guppy's FB quote to Roger Kahn's quote about a team in defeat, one of my favorites, and then tie both to any team playing the New York Yankees, and have fun that way. This was going to be a YANKEES SUCK blog post, and giddy, and ha-ha fun, but the Google searches depressed me too much: All the crap out there that ranks so highly. I'm even more depressed that somehow, in the last month, Pres. Obama's approval rating has dropped from 50 % to 41%. What happened in the last month? Tell me. How is he now in a statistical dead heat with Mitt Freakin' Romney? All the crap out there that ranks so highly.
Seriously, bless those who play in the face of certain defeat. Me, sometimes I get so sick of it all I search for e.e. cummings' helluva good universe next door.
Ralph Ellison of brainyquote.com. Make sure to “like” him.