A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Talkin' 'bout My Generation

The Mercury News today had one of those perfectly obvious "news" stories on its front page, about how Obama, Clinton/Romney, and McCain represent three generations: Gen-X, the Baby Boomers, and the Silent Generation. My first reaction was, Well, duh. But my second was to feel my old gray hackles rise at the labeling of my own cohort as the "Silent Generation."

The article defines the "Silent Generation" as those people born between 1925 and 1942, and claims that it "was overshadowed by the 'GI Generation' that preceded them and fought World War II, and the baby boomers who came after them."

Well, first of all, a lot of people born in 1925 and 1926 also fought in World War II and Korea. And the baby boom is usually dated from 1946, when GIs came home and started raising families.

But even taking the article on its own terms, the inappropriateness of the label "Silent Generation" is obvious. There's a chart that goes with the story (the Merc loves charts) headed "Generations compared" that lists, among other things, "Prominent contemporaries" for each of the generations. And the prominent contemporaries of the "Silent Generation" include Martin Luther King Jr. and Bob Dylan. If those guys were "overshadowed" by anyone in either the preceding or following generations, I'd like to know who.

I suspect that the "Silent Generation" label was coined by a baby boomer, a member of a generation that loves to celebrate itself. Baby boomers seem to believe that they changed the world, when most of the work was done for them by the generations that preceded theirs.

Take for example the famous baby boom triad of "sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll." That there was a sexual revolution there can be no doubt. But the groundwork for it was laid by Alfred Kinsey -- who was born in 1894. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male was published in 1948, and the followup on human females in 1953. It was the Silent Generation that made them bestsellers. As for drugs, it was Timothy Leary (born 1923) and Richard Alpert (aka Baba Ram Dass, born 1931), who ushered in the psychedelic era.

Oh, and where to start with rock 'n' roll? The article has already spotted us Bob Dylan (1941), but there would have been no good rockin' tonight without Chuck Berry (1926), Fats Domino (1928), Ray Charles (1930), Little Richard (1932), James Brown (1933), Elvis Presley (1935), Jerry Lee Lewis (1935), and Buddy Holly (1936). Not to mention a couple of Brits: John Lennon (1940) and Paul McCartney (1942).

In fact, almost everything the boomers claim as their own has its origins in the previous generation.

Feminism? Gloria Steinem (1934) and Germaine Greer (1939) built on the work of members of the generations before them, such as Betty Friedan (1921) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908).

Anti-war protest? Not one of the Chicago Seven was a baby boomer. Abbie Hoffman was born in 1936, Jerry Rubin in 1938, Tom Hayden in 1939, and so on.

Civil rights? Think Martin Luther King Jr. (1929) and Malcolm X (1925), James Meredith (1935), Eldridge Cleaver (1935), John Lewis (1940) and Julian Bond (1940). Rosa Parks was born in 1913.

Campus protest? Mario Savio of the Berkeley Free Speech movement was born in 1942.

The Merc article lists as the baby boom's "prominent contemporaries" George W. Bush, Madonna and Bill Gates. I think I'll stick with my contemporaries.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

And Then There Were Two

A friend of mine who supports Obama, and who is quite knowledgeable about the Clintons, had this to say recently: "I have a problem with Bill as the spouse of the nominee. I think he's capable of doing something, unconsciously or simply carelessly, to sabotage Hillary." That was, in fact, written before the South Carolina primary, and before Bill did exactly that in his attacks on Obama. And now the media are making much of The Snub -- the supposed cold shoulder that Obama gave Hillary at the State of the Union. Of course Maureen Dowd wrote one of her calumniating columns about The Snub, and today I turned on MSNBC too early -- before "Countdown" came on -- and heard my ineffable namesake yapping away about it, too. It seems that Bill Clinton is capable of sabotaging everybody. (Most of all, himself.)

I did, in fact, mail in my vote for Obama in the California primary, after much waffling among the three of them. But I found myself wishing for a candidate who combined Obama's charisma, Hillary's expertise and John Edwards' passion. I was almost as sorry to see Edwards drop out today as I was delighted and relieved to see Giuliani make his exit. Edwards got a bad deal almost from the moment Obama announced his candidacy, and the vapidity of the media coverage of his candidacy was infuriating. The $400 haircut, for god's sake. (I'm reading Willie Brown's memoir, Basic Brown, for a review. Brown talks about how he never felt any kind of disjunction between wearing $5,000 Brioni suits and fighting for the poor. I wish Edwards had had the same kind of chutzpah. But I'm not sure anyone but Willie Brown could pull it off these days.)

The truth is, I'm suffering from Clinton fatigue. I guess I'll have to get over it, because I still think she'll get the nomination. If she can keep the Big Dog in his kennel, maybe it will be all right.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Mansfield Misfire

Mansfield Park is sometimes called Jane Austen's "problem" novel, the problem being that its moral vision is so very different from ours, and its heroine seems so much less like our contemporary than Emma Woodhouse or Elizabeth Bennet do. Austen herself admitted that Fanny Price was a heroine that no one but she would like, but she also said Mansfield Park was the favorite of her novels.

Still, it's not so problematic a book that adapting it for the movies or TV should result in such terrible hashes as the two versions I've seen: The 1999 film written and directed by Patricia Rozema and the British TV version that aired on PBS Sunday night. The movie is better: Frances O'Connor is a good choice as Fanny, and the film at least follows something that resembles an outline of the novel. The chief difficulty with the film is that Rozema tries to interpolate into it a contemporary New Historical view of the book, pointing out that its wealthy idlers are wealthy and idle because of the exploitation of slaves in the West Indies. It's an intellectual premise that Rozema fails to translate into dramatic sense.

In this scene from the film, Sir Thomas (Harold Pinter) returns home to interrupt the theatricals. Jonny Lee Miller is Edmund, Embeth Davidtz Mary Crawford and Alessandro Nivola Henry Crawford. The conversation about breeding mulattos is, of course, not in the novel:

But at least the film version provokes you into thinking about something. The TV version allows for no thought. It's as if the adapter, one Maggie Wadey, was embarrassed by Fanny Price -- whom admittedly some readers regard as merely a prude, a prig and a wimp -- and is determined to turn her into a Harlequin romance heroine, with cleavage enough to catch any man's eye. Billie Piper, so wonderful as Rose on "Doctor Who," is miserably miscast in the role. She's made into a boisterous little child-woman, with a mad crush on her cousin Edmund (who is at least attractively embodied by Blake Ritson). She's supposed to be the conscience of the household, but when it comes to the amateur theatricals that are the moral crux of the novel, in the TV version she doesn't hold out against them as obdurately as Austen's Fanny Price did. And with this, the TV version crumbles into pointlessness.

Moreover, Wadey utterly botches one of Austen's greatest characters, the poisonous Mrs. Norris (Maggie O'Neil), reducing her to a figure sitting to one side doing her needlework and making the occasional mildly anti-Fanny remark. So when she gets her final comeuppance -- one of the novel's most satisfying moments -- we hardly even notice. A Mansfield Park without a Mrs. Norris is like a Snow White without a wicked stepmother.

Mary Crawford (Hayley Atwell) is another of Austen's great creations. In the novel, she's the embodiment of cleverness and wit -- an Elizabeth Bennet without a soul. Here, she's only a rather attractive woman twirling a parasol and being mildly snippy about Edmund's plans to be a clergyman.

This version also omits Fanny's journey -- her banishment -- home to Portsmouth: a key episode for the character, who discovers in the squalor of her old home how much she values Mansfield Park and all it represents. It's an essential contrast that no amount of flowery talk about how beautiful Mansfield is can compensate for.

In short, I don't think I've seen a worse travesty of a great novel. (Well ... maybe Demi Moore's version of The Scarlet Letter.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Man Who Should Have Been President

Instead, we spent the last seven years with the other guy.

Words, Words, Words

I'm always late to the party, but I just discovered the Language Log blog, which I've added to my blogroll. Wonderful, witty commentary on the things people say. But I'm still searching for an explanation of why we call it dog food on the one hand, but chicken feed on the other.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Riding the Rails With the Robber Barons

My review of this book appeared today in the San Francisco Chronicle:

THE ASSOCIATES: Four Capitalists Who Created California
By Richard Rayner
Atlas-W.W. Norton, 224 pp., $23.95

Some stories are too good to be true, so they probably aren’t. But true or not, one that Richard Rayner tells about the California railroad baron Collis P. Huntington is key to Rayner’s portrait of the man. Huntington was in Paris in 1893, when a reporter asked for his opinion of the city’s most famous landmark.

“ ‘Your Eiffel Tower is all very well,’ Huntington told those French reporters. ‘But where’s the money in it?’ ”

Rayner begins his brisk little book “The Associates” with that story and concludes it with a similar anecdote about Huntington’s eye for profit. So although it’s nominally about the “Big Four” who made their fortunes from the building of the Central Pacific Railroad – Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins – Huntington so frames and dominates the book that it might have been called “He Saw the Money in It.”

Huntington even saw the money in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln: “Confusion and dismay were another opportunity for him to exercise his habitual wiles,” Rayner observes. He exploited the chaos in Washington by pushing through an override of the Railroad Act of 1864 that would have halted the Central Pacific in Nevada. Instead, it drove on to Utah. Rayner’s Huntington is the driving force of the railroad: “Out of the narrowness of his concerns sprang a grand and greedy vision, and he was working toward it even while the success of the central stem of the enterprise, crawling forward through granite and blizzards, looked hugely uncertain.”

With Huntington as primus inter pares, the other three Associates often fade into the background of Rayner’s narrative. Hopkins, as Huntington said, “was strictly an office man,” though he was not above burning the ledgers of the Central Pacific when a congressional committee came snooping. “Huntington blithely announced that the company records had been lost. ‘My partner Hopkins is a peculiar man,’ he said. ‘He considered the paper no longer worth saving.’ ”

The corpulent Crocker is presented as a genial con artist, “the most approachable of the four men.” When a commission came to inspect the construction of the railroad, Crocker showed them the best-laid sections of the track, then invited them in for a ride while the train sped over the parts that had been poorly constructed. The inspectors were fooled, and Huntington was pleased to hear it. “ ‘I think you must have slept with them,’ Huntington wrote to Crocker. ‘There is nothing like sleeping with men, or women either for that matter.’ ”

At least Hopkins and Crocker are given credit for doing something. Rayner portrays Stanford as a blowhard and a bit of a wuss, mocked by the other Associates for his laziness. “As to work he absolutely succeeds in doing nothing as near as a man can,” Crocker said of Stanford. His desire to stay put on his Peninsula farm was especially irksome: “Huntington wanted Stanford to base himself in Salt Lake City, to make an ally of Brigham Young, and hire teams of Mormons for the advance surveys. Stanford dithered. He’d become father to a son, Leland Jr., and didn’t want to leave home.” Still, Stanford was in Utah when the golden spike was driven, and made what Rayner calls “a speech pompous even by his own standards.” Huntington was at his desk in New York “as the cannons boomed and church bells began to ring out.” He left “the champagne and absurd hullabaloo to Stanford and the others.”

“The Associates” is part of Norton’s “Enterprise” series, described by the publisher thus: “Intended for both business professionals and the general reader, these are books whose insights come from the realm of business but inform the world we live in today.” This may explain the boys-will-be-boys tone with which Rayner, a British-born novelist who lives in Los Angeles, treats his robber-baron protagonists. He notes the criticism of the Associates by writers such as Ambrose Bierce and Frank Norris, as well as the San Francisco Chronicle’s attacks that led a friend of Huntington to denounce the newspaper as “a disgraceful sheet” that “believes in no honor except its own – that is to say, none at all.” Rayner also makes obligatory mention of the railroad’s exploitation of Chinese laborers, its destruction of Indian lands, and its bloody battles with settlers over land rights. He comments that contemporary analysis of the Associates and the way they worked is “ideologically pulverizing. It cuts to the heart of how we feel about business and whether political power is, or should be, the handmaiden of economic power.”

And yet the Machiavellian Huntington is something of a heroic figure in Rayner’s telling, a man who pulled off what Rayner calls “one of the great high-wire acts in the history of American business.” Stanford, the “dithering” Associate who seemed content to enjoy his wealth, is mocked as “the businessman/politician as actor, always aware that he was playing a part, … whereas Huntington was the pure product of his era, a restless commingling of intelligence and energy, of cunning and drive. Much later, in the 1880s, Stanford used his money to found the university that bears his name. Today, he’d most likely have bought a sports team.”

That’s hardly fair. Stanford may have been a windbag and he was certainly no saint, but his grief over the death of Leland Jr. was deep and genuine. And there’s a fine irony that this “laziest” of the Associates, in his impulse to memorialize his son, endowed an institution that immortalizes his name while those of the other Associates have faded. Mark Hopkins is recalled mostly because of the hotel on Nob Hill that stands where his mansion once flaunted his wealth. Crocker’s name dots the Bay Area landscape less prominently than it did before Wells Fargo gobbled up his eponymous bank. And Huntington’s name has been preserved chiefly on the plaques identifying the paintings he left to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. (He saw the money in them, but he couldn’t take it with him. It was his nephew, Henry, who used the wealth he inherited from his uncle – he also married his aunt, Huntington’s widow, merging their fortunes -- to memorialize his own name in the great library at San Marino.)

“The Associates” is a slim and lively pop history, full of fizz and sweeteners. It will do if you’re curious and uninformed about the Big Four, but its superficiality should leave you hungry for the substance of what is clearly one of the great American epics.

Afterthought: "Eponymous bank"? Wasn't he a jazz pianist?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Metacriticism and Ondaatje's "Divisadero"

Forgive the title of this entry, which sounds like an undergraduate's term paper, but on the National Book Critics Circle's blog, Critical Mass, critic Molly McQuade has just finished a three-part essay on book reviewing, for which she read some twenty reviews of Michael Ondaatje's recently published novel Divisadero. I read McQuade's essay -- which you can find here, here and here -- with some trepidation. I had reviewed Divisadero myself. Would I get zinged?

Turns out I'm safe. Several other reviewers were not so lucky -- she has some pretty corrosive things to say about their prose and their approaches to the book. But maybe she didn't read mine.

In any case, her essay provides a somewhat insidery look at the reviewing game, worth reading if you're a reviewer because the critiques of the critics make you ask, "Do I do that?" But it's also worth reading if you're just a reader of reviews, because of what she has to say about the state of reviewing today. (It ain't good.) Not to criticize the critique of criticism -- which would be to commit metametacriticism, I guess -- but I found some of the essay a bit waffling and inconclusive. But these are inconclusive times.

Anyway, for what it's worth, here's my own review of Divisadero, which appeared in the Mercury News.

By Michael Ondaatje
Knopf, 273 pp., $25

Divisadero is one of those San Francisco streets on which you climb to a summit and are suddenly plunged toward the bay. One of the characters in Michael Ondaatje’s new novel, which bears its name, explicates: “Divisadero, from the Spanish word for ‘division,’ the street that at one time was the dividing line between San Francisco and the fields of the Presidio. Or it might derive from the word divisar, meaning ‘to gaze at something from a distance.’ ”

“Divisadero” is really something like two novellas bound together by some slender narrative threads and images. (A blue table plays a role in both stories.) And just as you do on the eponymous street, you reach the climax of one story only to be plunged suddenly into the other.

The first story has to do with three young people raised by a man on a farm in Sonoma County near Petaluma. His wife died giving birth to Anna, and when another woman also died in childbirth at the same hospital, he adopted that baby too, naming her Claire. Earlier, he and his wife had also taken in a 4-year-old boy named Cooper, whose family had been murdered by their hired hand.

So Anna, Claire and Coop, unrelated by blood, grew up together. And when Anna was 16 the novelistically inevitable happened: She and Coop became lovers. When their father learned of it, he beat Coop senseless and drove off with Anna – “as if distance would dilute whatever existed between Coop and me,” she tells us in one of the sections she narrates. But somewhere south of San Jose, she escaped from him and hitched a ride with a truck driver, vanishing from the lives of her family. Claire nursed Coop’s wounds, but he too fled from their father’s anger, leaving her alone with the old man when he returned.

The years pass. Coop becomes a professional gambler, Claire a researcher in the San Francisco public defender’s office, and Anna a writer who is living in France while she researches the life of a poet named Lucien Segura. Anna has an affair with a part-Gipsy musician named Rafael who, when he was a boy, had known Segura. Meanwhile, chance and calamity reunite Claire and Coop.

And there that story hangs as we plunge into the life of Segura, which is similarly a story of separations and thwarted love. Segura’s boyhood infatuation with Marie-Neige, a young married woman almost his age, blossoms into a lifelong obsession. His mother teaches the illiterate Marie-Neige to read, and Segura reads aloud to her from novels: “They had both grown up far from the intrigue of cities, and now they fell upon Dumas as a guide into those cities that were always in peril and where the sight of an emerald on a neck could betray a family dynasty.”

Later, Segura would write a series of adventure romances in the Dumas mode, published pseudonymously. “The books hardly seemed the work of a well-regarded poet, or the author of the bitter jeremiad on the recent and already forgotten war,” but they were the outpouring of Segura’s sense of loss – of Marie-Neige and of a romanticized idyllic past.

Ondaatje is one of the most romantic of contemporary “literary” novelists, and his flights of passion, even in his Booker prize-winning “The English Patient,” turn some readers off. Coop and Rafael are the kind of Byronic bad-boy loners who make romance readers’ hearts go a-flutter, and Ondaatje even resorts to the soapiest of psychological phenomena: a case of amnesia. Realists will also niggle that no team of paramedics is going to leave a man who’s been beaten unconscious to be looked after by a non-professional. In these days of high liability insurance premiums, they’d haul him in for at least a CAT scan.

Moreover, readers who insist on fictional closure had best stay away from “Divisadero.” Anna, Claire and Coop are left suspended up there on that summit. “Divisadero” is a book for a reader who can go with its flow, who is mindful of small details, who relishes its author’s almost D.H. Lawrencian attentiveness to nature, who hears its sonata-like entwining of themes, and who’s happy to reflect upon and reread a novel rather than shelve it and move along to the next. For this is a novel by a poet – Ondaatje has published at least 13 volumes of verse – who’s more fascinated by the texture of life at given moments, and the way those moments can be captured in words, than he is at tracing lives from beginning through middle through end.

It’s also probably the best California novel – the action of the first part of it ranges from Sonoma to Santa Barbara to Bakersfield to Tahoe -- ever written by a Canadian born in Sri Lanka.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Almost Persuaded

"Masterpiece Theatre" -- which I guess is now calling itself just "Masterpiece" for some reason -- did a new version of Jane Austen's Persuasion last night, and it was, like, three-fourths successful. The Anne Elliot (Sally Hawkins) was suitably faded and the Captain Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones) suitably stalwart (though I prefer the performances by Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds in the 1995 version). And it was fun to see Anthony Head (Giles from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") as Sir William Elliot -- he gave the part an oddly more menacing edge than one expects.

But it was only three-fourths successful because although it did a fine job of capturing the first three-fourths of the book, at that point everyone involved seemed to get bored. The denouement, in which all the hidden truths are revealed and Anne and Wentworth decide they love each other, was summed up in a frantic race around Bath in which characters darted up, gabbled some exposition, and then hurried on. Clench, kiss, music up and out.

Here's the trailer for the original British series of Austen novels that PBS will be running. Pretty mushy stuff.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Awards Season

The National Book Critics Circle, of which I'm a member, just announced the nominees for its annual book awards. And as usual, I'm embarrassed by how many I haven't read or reviewed.

Here they are:

Joshua Clark,
Heart Like Water: Surviving Katrina and Life in Its Disaster Zone, Free Press
Edwidge Danticat,
Brother, I'm Dying, Knopf
Joyce Carol Oates,
The Journals of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973–1982, Ecco
Sara Paretsky,
Writing in an Age of Silence, Verso
Anna Politkovskaya,
Russian Diary: A Journalist's Final Account of Life, Corruption and Death in Putin's Russia, Random House

Philip Gura,
American Transcendentalism, Farrar, Straus
Daniel Walker Howe,
What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America 1815-1848, Oxford University Press
Harriet Washington,
Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, Doubleday
Tim Weiner,
Legacy of Ashes: A History of the CIA, Doubleday
Alan Weisman,
The World Without Us, Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s

Vikram Chandra,
Sacred Games, HarperCollins
Junot Diaz,
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Riverhead
Hisham Matar,
In the Country of Men. Dial Press
Joyce Carol Oates,
The Gravedigger's Daughter. HarperCollins
Marianne Wiggins,
The Shadow Catcher, Simon & Schuster.

Tim Jeal,
Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa’s Greatest Explorer, Yale University Press
Hermione Lee,
Edith Wharton, Knopf
Arnold Rampersad,
Ralph Ellison. Knopf
John Richardson,
The Life Of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, Knopf
Claire Tomalin,
Thomas Hardy, Penguin Press

Mary Jo Bang,
Elegy, Graywolf
Matthea Harvey,
Modern Life, Graywolf
Michael O'Brien,
Sleeping and Waking, Flood
Tom Pickard,
The Ballad of Jamie Allan, Flood
Tadeusz Rozewicz,
New Poems, Archipelago

Joan Acocella,
Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, Pantheon
Julia Alvarez.
Once Upon a Quniceanera, Viking
Susan Faludi,
The Terror Dream, Metropolitan/Holt
Ben Ratliff,
Coltrane: The Story of a Sound, Farrar, Straus
Alex Ross.
The Rest Is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, Farrar, Straus

Actually, I only reviewed one of them. Here's my review, which appeared in the Mercury News and the Houston Chronicle:

By Arnold Rampersad
Knopf, 688 pp., $35

Confronted with something as messy and complicated as a human life, a biographer can too easily fall into the trap of simplification, seizing on one prominent aspect of the subject’s character and history, the way a caricaturist turns a potato nose or jug ears into the dominant feature in a cartoon. On the other hand, if the life surveyed is long enough and complex enough, the biographer may be tempted just to report the incidents and events and let the reader do the hard work of shaping them into a coherent image.

What makes Stanford professor Arnold Rampersad’s biography of Ralph Ellison so immensely engaging, so satisfying, is that he steers deftly between these extremes.

The temptations are certainly there. Ellison was caricatured during his life as a "one-book wonder" and as an "Uncle Tom." And his life spanned most of the 20th century – he was born in 1913 and died in 1994 – in which black Americans moved from Jim Crow, through the civil rights struggle and Black Power, and into the era of "benign neglect."

In his lifetime, Ellison gave us the indelibly powerful novel "Invisible Man" and two volumes of incisive, penetrating essays. He was richly rewarded with fellowships and lectureships and memberships in hitherto whites-only organizations, as well as with a great deal of money. He dined at the White House and counted among his friends some of the most eminent writers and intellectuals.

But he also remained aloof from the community of black writers, many of whom might never have found print or voice if it hadn’t been for his pioneering work. As a member of the exclusive Century Club in Manhattan, he made no effort to recruit other black members (and strongly opposed the admission of women to the club). He steadily refused to provide blurbs for the books of younger black writers. When he was appointed to a tenured professorship at New York University, he insisted on teaching American literature, not black literature, even at a time when universities were responding to pressure to introduce black studies courses and departments. (His attitude may have sparked a backlash in black studies courses elsewhere. When the novelist-to-be Charles Johnson asked a librarian in the black studies program at Southern Illinois University for a copy of "Invisible Man," he was told that "Ralph Ellison is not a black writer.")

Ellison defied the temper of the times, even resisting linguistic change when "Negro" gave way to "black." He explained, "I’m pretty close to black, but I’m pretty close to brown, too. In a cultural sense, the term 'Negro' tells me something about the mixture of African, European, and native-American styles which define me. … Black, in America, connotes a certain ideological stance. In that sense, I am not black. I am a Negro-American writer. I emphasize Negro because it refers specifically to an American cultural phenomenon."

The resistance to ideology is central to Ellison’s approach to the world and his art. He had flirted with communism as a young man, though he never joined the Communist Party, and the experience left him soured. In Ellison’s view of things, after the initial successes of the civil rights struggle, the movement for equality and justice for black people had turned ideological. He remained radically individualistic – he opposed affirmative action programs, for example. In our current polarized political climate, he would probably be labeled a conservative. Although Ellison strongly opposed the cutback in federal social programs that began with the Reagan presidency, as Rampersad observes, "He blamed excessive liberalism for the rise of conservatism under Reagan."

But Rampersad is not one to apply labels to Ellison, even the perhaps more stinging one of "one-book wonder." "Invisible Man" appeared in 1952, and for the next 42 years of his life, Ellison was pained by his inability to produce a second great novel and by the public’s curiosity about his work in progress. In 1967, he lost some manuscript pages of this second novel in a fire that destroyed his summer home. At first he downplayed the loss, saying that he had copies of what he'd done. But later, when he was asked about his slowness in producing the book, he began to blame the fire, and sometimes upped the estimate of pages lost to 365 or even 500. At his death, he left some 2,000 pages of manuscript, which were whittled down by his literary executor, John F. Callahan, into the 400-page novel "Juneteenth," published in 1999.

His failure to produce elicited scathing comments from some younger writers. The poet Nikki Giovanni said, "as a writer Ellison is so much hot air, because he hasn’t had the guts to go on writing." But Rampersad suggests that Ellison suffered not so much from writer’s block as from an inability to focus, and often from the difficulty of keeping his material contemporary. "Invisible Man" was written out of the experience of a black man in Jim Crow America. But as the role of black citizens in the social and political dynamic of the United States changed in the 1950s and ’60s, reality often outpaced the imagination. At one time, the second novel was to hinge on a political assassination, but the assassinations of John Kennedy, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. eclipsed Ellison’s fiction.

It’s possible that Ellison was not really cut out to be a novelist. One pregnant observation came from Ernest Gaines, who found "Invisible Man" "a cold book. It’s more a collection of essays than a novel." And that may in fact be the problem that Ellison never really comprehended: that he was, like his namesake Ralph Waldo Emerson, essentially an essayist and not a novelist.

Rampersad lauds Ellison for his "brave refusal of coarse, destructive forms of militancy, his eloquent embrace of a studied moderation, and his complex patriotism." But he also portrays him as a conflicted man, whose outward elegance – once he could afford it he was always expensively, conservatively dressed – concealed private demons. In his own encounter with Ellison, an interview conducted when Rampersad was working on his biography of Langston Hughes, Rampersad found him "chilly." "James Baldwin called him the angriest man he knew," Rampersad tells us. And after his death, Toni Morrison wrote that Ellison "saw himself as a black literary patrician, but at some level this was a delusion. It was simply his solution to that persistent problem black writers are confronted with: art and, or versus, identity. I don’t see tragedy in his predicament. I see a kind of sadness instead."

In Rampersad’s hands, Ellison’s life emerges as one of the essential literary lives of the 20th century, as reflective of the times in which he lived as, say, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s was of the 1920s. Like Fitzgerald’s landmark novel, “The Great Gatsby,” Ellison’s “Invisible Man” is a product of a particular time. "Gatsby" epitomizes the 1920s just as "Invisible Man" is a document of the struggle against Jim Crow, but both are also works that are enduringly transcendent of time and place. Rampersad’s exemplary biography, written with a blend of deep sympathy and cool detachment, splendidly achieves the one true task of literary biography: It illuminates the life so that we may better understand what it produced.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Do You Secretly Hate Hillary?

How much do you really like the candidate you say you're voting for? Here's a test that's supposed to tell you whether you're lying to yourself. Or something.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

New on the Bookshelves

I receive maybe a dozen books a week from publishers wanting a review. A leaning tower of January titles stands precariously across the room from me. Well, I can't review or even read most of them, but I figure what I can do, now that I've got this blog thingie, is to list the books I've been sent that are coming out in the week ahead.

This doesn't mean, of course, that these are the only new books coming out. Just the ones that I've been sent. So here's what you'll find in the bookstores this coming week.

Bang Crunch: Stories, by Neil Smith (Vintage; January 8)

The Christian World: A Global History, by Martin E. Marty (Modern Library; January 8)

Day: A Novel, by A.L. Kennedy (Knopf; January 8)

Homecoming: A Novel, by Bernhard Schlink (Pantheon; January 8)

The Painter of Battles: A Novel, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (Random House; January 8)

Vienna Blood: A Novel, by Frank Tallis (Mortalis/Random House; January 8)

This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust (Knopf; January 10)

The Senator’s Wife: A Novel, by Sue Miller (Knopf; January 11)

I’m Looking Through You – Growing Up Haunted: A Memoir, by Jennifer Finney Boylan (Broadway; January 15)

Kyra: A Novel, by Carol Gilligan (Random House; January 15)

Gambling With My Vote

In addition to dithering over Obama vs. Clinton (or maybe Edwards), I've also been procrastinating on filling out my ballot because of the state initiatives. Those of you not in California don't need to read the rest of this entry, but like most people who live here, I dread studying the ballot initiatives. And like a lot of people, I tend to vote no if I don't understand what's at stake. Also, as Kevin Drum often argues, voting no is a way of telling the legislature to do its job and stop passing the buck to the voters.

But now it turns out that voting no is exactly what the proponents of Propositions 94, 95, 96 and 97, which have to do with Indian gaming, want you to do. Patty Fisher, the Mercury News columnist, explains why in an excellent column.

Tricky bastards.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Taking Nothing for Granite

After all the premature obituaries for Hillary Clinton's campaign, it was nice to see her in a too-close-to-call race in New Hampshire. Especially after all of the nonsense about her "crying" yesterday. I thought it was one of the few really humanizing moments I've seen from her, but of course the punditry had to ascribe it either to weakness or to sheer fakery. I hate the media, even if I am one.

Our absentee ballots have arrived. (Californians, at least in this county, are being urged to vote by mail because of the secretary of state's ruling that electronic machines are unreliable.) My daughter has already filled hers out -- she voted for Clinton. I'm waffling again, after having decided that I would vote for Obama.

At least Hillary's strong showing may curb some of Andrew Sullivan's gloating.

Sunday, January 6, 2008


I admit it: Whenever I'm in a bookstore, I check to see if I've been blurbed. That is, if I've been quoted on the cover of the paperback edition of a book I've reviewed. It's nice to see one's own words live on, even if the quote has been lifted from context, and one is identified only as "San Jose Mercury News" or "San Francisco Chronicle" or whatever paper published the review.

Occasionally they even mention your name. And sometimes they get it wrong. On the jacket of Gregory Curtis's excellent book about prehistoric artists, The Cave Painters, I found this quote from my review of his earlier book, Disarmed: The Story of the Venus de Milo:
"Absorbing ... Enormously entertaining ... Curtis is a writer of generous wit, who packs his book with delicious portraits of scholars, writers, artists, and politicians who contributed to the mythologizing of the Venus de Milo."
All very nice, and a good sampling of my opinion of the book. Except that the quote was attributed to:
--Chris Matthews, San Jose Mercury News
I mean, I don't usually mind when people get my name wrong. I gently inform them that it's Charles, not Charlie or Chuck. (I even used to let myself be known as Chuck, until my wife told me the nickname always made her think of hamburger meat.)

But Chris Matthews? Of all the bloviating newstalkers I think he's the one I least want to be identified with. Well, no, I wouldn't prefer to be confused with Limbaugh or O'Reilly or Hannity, but that's because their politics are so foul. Chris Matthews irks me because he's such an addle-brained sexist, who can't get over the fact that Hillary Clinton is a -- gasp! -- woman, and who has embarrassing man-crushes on macho men like McCain and Fred Thompson and -- at least around the time of "Mission Accomplished" -- George W. And I hate watching Keith Olbermann grit his teeth when he's forced to share an anchor desk with Chris M.

I e-mailed Knopf about the mistake, and a very contrite publicist said that the editor who messed it up sent her apologies. Apology accepted.

Where Do You Live, Exactly?

I don't normally respond to telephone surveys, but in an election year, I get kind of curious about what they're asking, so yesterday I agreed to participate in one. Unfortunately, it wasn't about whether I preferred Clinton or Edwards or Obama, but a survey of Mountain View residents about the development of a shopping center near us.

I did my duty, however, and stayed on the line answering questions that were clearly aimed at finding out whether we wanted a Home Depot to replace the failing Sears store in the center, and what it would take to persuade us that we do. I have no opinion one way or the other -- I don't shop at either. But one question broke me up: Do I agree or disagree with the statement "Mountain View should be more like Palo Alto"? The questioner even asked, "Why do people always laugh when I ask them that?"

Well, the truth is that I've lived in both Palo Alto and Mountain View, and the quality of life in both is about the same. To the outsider, Silicon Valley is one long indistinguishable suburban smear from Redwood City to San Jose. My brother-in-law, who visited us for the holidays, even asked me, "Does Mountain View have a government?" As if we depended on a volunteer fire department and neighborhood watch. I pointed out that we got our water through pipes and that we weren't reduced to kerosene lanterns, but he was still surprised that the population of Mountain View is something over 70,000.

But I knew exactly what the questioner meant. No one would have asked, "Should Mountain View be more like Los Altos (or Sunnyvale or Menlo Park)?"

The usual line about Mountain View is that it's Palo Alto without the attitude. It's also Palo Alto without the bureaucracy and the intense NIMBYism that has turned at least two potentially lucrative commercial sites into ghost shopping centers -- empty stores, awaiting replacement tenants who can jump all the approval hurdles.

I know this means nothing to the outside world. People who visit here are also surprised that Mountain View is a pancake-flat town -- not the Swiss village clinging to the mountainside that the name suggests. (There are mountains -- little ones -- that can be viewed from here.) The best you can get from outsiders is, "Oh yeah, isn't that where Apple has its headquarters?" To which the response is, "No, that's Cupertino. We've got Google."

It is, as I've always said, a nice place to live, but you wouldn't want to visit here. Unless you like to take naps.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas

Well, it's the twelfth day of Christmas, and as soon as I can get the twelve drummers drumming out of the house, the holiday season is officially over. Actually, for us it ended on New Year's Day, when we took down the decorations and put the tree -- I bought a little potted fir this year -- outside. And yesterday, I drove my brother-in-law to the airport in a driving rainstorm. So it's all back to normal.

Well, as normal as anything is in an election year. I have to admit that the enthusiasm for Obama in Iowa is contagious. And now I read that he's leading Hillary by twelve points in the New Hampshire polls. I still think Hillary's experience would make her the more effective president, but I've got nothing against Obama. The symbolism alone makes me happy -- that of a black man as the leader of the United States, a country that was conceived in liberty for everyone who was a white man, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, except for black slaves, who were counted as only three-fifths equal and then only for purposes of apportioning representatives.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

What Year Is It?

Amid the calls to ban wood-burning fireplaces and to neuter dogs and cats, the anti-immigration and anti-tax diatribes, the denunciation of global warming as “baloney,” and the sternly worded opinion on Pakistani elections, I found this rather charming comment in the letters to the editor in today’s Mercury News:

I am mildly irritated by those who pronounce the year as “two thousand eight.” I’ll bet not one of those people said “one thousand nine hundred ninety-nine.” So, why the grammatical schism? What did they say at the turn of the last millennium?

Ed Jacklitch

San Jose

Well, each to his own, Mr. Jacklitch. I happen to find that “two thousand eight” comes out more smoothly than “twenty-oh-eight.” And I submit that this schism, if that’s what it is, is a matter more of diction than of grammar. It’s too bad that we don’t have YouTube videos of Ethelred the Unready giving the royal New Year’s proclamation for 1008 so we can check up on the way the date was handled in the King’s English. (Though it would have been in Anglo-Saxon or Latin anyway.)

I imagine we’ll waffle between “two thousand something” and “twenty something” for a few years longer. Probably until 2020, when saying “twenty twenty” will be irresistible.

Which reminds me that it’s been a long time since there was a lot of discussion about what we’re going to call this decade. People were arguing for “the naughts,” “the aughts,” “the nulls,” “the zeroes,” “the zips” and “the ohs.” It made me wonder when we started naming decades. I’ve read a lot of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novels, and I don’t recall anyone ever saying something like “back in the forties” in them.

The habit of singling out a decade and putting a label on it seems to have begun with “the Gay Nineties,” a phrase that the not-always-to-be-trusted Wikipedia claims wasn’t coined until 1926. (It also notes that the phrase had to do with “merriment and frivolity,” not the current meaning of “gay,” even though it was the decade of Oscar Wilde’s triumph and tragedy.) But we seem to have skipped over the 1900s and 1910s when it comes to labeling. We don’t start treating decades as cultural units until the Roaring Twenties.

It’s a lazy habit anyway. What we call “the sixties” – protest, youth rebellion, sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll and all that – really began in 1964 with Beatles coming to New York and LBJ escalating the Vietnam War with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, and didn’t end till … oh, maybe the rise of disco and the resignation of Richard Nixon in 1974.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have a decade of merriment and frivolity again?

Afterthought: I wonder if Mr. Jacklitch referred to 2000 as "twenty-hundred"?

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

For the news media, the Christmas Day tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo is the gift that keeps on giving. Especially since celebrattorney Mark Geragos heard the sirens and signed on to represent the Dhaliwal brothers, survivors of the attack.

One thing that the story I read in the Mercury News doesn’t explain, however, is why Geragos, best known as a defense attorney for the likes of Scott Peterson, Michael Jackson and Winona Ryder, is on the case. Seems like the Dhaliwals need a plaintiff’s attorney. Who’s suing whom?

But what really caught my interest was something that the Merc quoted Geragos as saying about the security guard who allegedly failed to respond to the brothers’ pleas for help: “She was completely diffident.”

I think I’d be diffident – i.e., timid and shy – if someone told me a tiger was on the loose. Although on the other hand, diffidence is not something you want in a security guard, so maybe Geragos has a point.

Or perhaps he meant to say “indifferent”? I hope he wasn’t trying for “disinterested,” which too many people use to mean “uninterested,” when what it really means is “impartial.” But that’s a gripe for another day.

Anyway, see what I mean? This is a story with something for everyone: zoo-lovers, zoo-haters, lawyers, lawyer-lovers, lawyer-haters, the morbidly curious, and even wordfreaks.