merrittierce

Merritt Tierce (The Bat Segundo Show #551)

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Merritt Tierce is most recently the author of Love Me Back, a lively and fierce debut novel about a young single mother who works as a waitress and disguises her pain and humiliation behind a smile. Love Me Back was published by Doubleday.

This book is one of those rare works of art possessed with the boldness and the decency to tell the complicated truth about how women are doomed to second-class treatment in our precarious economy. It is a welcome and candid corrective to such loathsome television shows as 2 Broke Girls that prefer to prop up a sexist fantasy and outright myths rather than contend with blue-collar life. The distinction between Love Me Back‘s art and 2 Broke Girls‘s awfulness worked our production team up so much that this episode’s introduction contains a strong critique of 2 Broke Girls‘s sexist treatment of its characters and how it has influenced the perception of waitresses in American culture.

Our conversation with Ms. Tierce begins at the 4:57 mark. In our conversation with Ms. Tierce, there is also a remarkable gaffe, indeed one of the most notable flubs in our program’s long history, that involves a mangled pronoun. Apparently, Our Correspondent was so won over by Tierce’s narrative that he made the mistake of believing that the character Danny said something worse than he did in the text.

Author: Merritt Tierce

Subjects Discussed: The American novel and people who work in restaurants, James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, Mimi Pond’s Over Easy, working in a high-end steakhouse, how restaurants distort the physical form, cutting, self-harm, comparing the early version of “Suck It” to the book’s version, keeping text the same over a seven year period, the first full story that Tierce ever wrote, knowing that Love Me Back was a book, Alexander Maksik’s input into Love Me Back, approaching a book without knowing it was a novel or a short story collections, the commercial stigma against short story collections, interstitial pieces linking the stories, creating sentences that are more final than final, stripping italics and punctuation from the original stories, the fictionalized essay Tierce wrote for Pank, style and plummeting attention spans in the digital age, circumstances in which we see punctuation marks in life, why Tierce can’t add anything artificial to her writing, the sense of time related to life waiting tables, Tierce being accused of “petty rebellion” by a professor, women being defined exclusively in roles of pain, Leslie Jamison’s “Grand Unified Theory of Female Pain,” women as second-class beings, the difficulty of writing happiness, what happens when you read too much Thomas Hardy, Edward P. Jones, Marie’s small size and her epicene identity, the ostensible fluidity of gender, vulnerability, Victoria Patterson’s LARB essay on Love Me Back, the ineluctably damaging qualities of the male gaze, when rebellion and degradation align, personal responsibility in being exploited, Tierce sharing biographical details with Marie, Tierce’s short story “Solitaire,” “This is What an Abortion Looks Like,” imagination and personal experience, the conversational stigma about abortion as a very regular part in American life, Wendy Davis, Obvious Child, and acceptance of same-sex marriage vs. acceptance of abortion.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Before we get into what this novel has to say about class, about self-abuse, and about being a woman, I’d like to get into the American novel’s often neglected history about people who work in restaurants. I think of James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce and I figured you were familiar with that given the cognates in your name. And I also think about Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster. I think about Mimi Pond’s graphic novel, Over Easy, which is somewhere between a memoir and fiction. To what extent was your novel a response to this often neglected form of novel? And given that there are an estimated 2.4 million* waiters and waitresses in this country, why do you think that this very real life has been so underrepresented in literature?

Tierce: That’s a great question and I’m really impressed at that list that you just provided. Because a lot of people have asked me, “Why haven’t I read anything about restaurant life?” And I am familiar with Mildred Pierce only because of the HBO miniseries.

mildredpiercewaitressCorrespondent: Oh, the Todd Haynes.

Tierce: With Kate Winslet. And it’s fantastic.

Correspondent: And has a great dramatization of restaurant life as well.

Tierce: Yes! It does. And there’s some similar themes at work, I think, in Mildred Pierce and in my book. And I’m also glad to hear that number. 2.4 million. Because it seems like so many people have worked in restaurants or even in some other form of retail or customer service.

Correspondent: That’s just waiters and waitresses. I pulled that from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Because I really wanted to know that number too.

Tierce: Okay. Cool. Yeah. It’s something that so many people are familiar with and I’m surprised there’s not more writing about it. But one of my theories is that it’s really hard work. And a lot of times it’s just a means to whatever real end you’re going for in your life. And I say “real” because I don’t want to diminish anyone’s work in restaurants. I worked in restaurants for fifteen years. And it was very much my real life.

Correspondent: When did you stop working at restaurants? I know that the New Stories from the South bio says that you were working in a high-end steakhouse at that time. And I was curious about when that tapered off.

Tierce: Yeah, I was. And it tapered off about two and a half years ago. So it’s fairly recent. I mean, it’s so recent that I still frequently wake up and have a moment where I’m grateful that I don’t have to go work in a restaurant tonight.

Correspondent: Wow. What kept you in that? And it seems to me there’s an almost addictive impulse to it that you tap into very well with this novel.

Tierce: I mean, I couldn’t make more money doing anything else. So there was that reality. And I have two kids. And I’ve had them since I was Marie’s age myself. So it was hard for me to simultaneously make a living and try to get advanced in any other arena of life. And I think that is why a lot of artists especially keep working in restaurants. Because you have some flexibility and you have a steady cash income usually, which is enough to keep you going. But then you do get caught in it. And it’s hard to get out. And that goes back to what I think about why it’s not written about. It’s because when you do break out of it, it’s such a relief. You don’t want to think about it one more second of your life. Especially not to write.

Correspondent: Well, I think what it is — and I had a stint working in restaurants a long time ago — but it’s this kind of illusion that you’re free. Because I can always drop the job if I get a gig. And then you get caught up in a similar cycle that has no job security whatsoever. And I guess there’s so much shame attached that we don’t want to analyze it — whether it be in literature or even in life or even in regular conversation.

Tierce: Right. Yeah. You know, that’s an unfortunate reality of life — in particular, in America. The service industry is so condescended to and looked down on. You know, it’s not thought of as worthwhile work.

Correspondent: Or if it is, it’s some kind of vibrant, effervescent comedy or something.

Tierce: Right.

Correspondent: As opposed to the realities, the darkness. The physicality, which you get into very well in this book. Well, we don’t actually learn Marie’s name until a few chapters in. And this seems to reflect this regrettable cultural tendency in which customers, even the most progressive-minded ones, will often go into a restaurant and not even remember the name or not even see anything of the waiter or the waitress other than a physical blur And that opening section where it’s just this extraordinary sense of physical seizure is astonishing. But throughout the book, there’s a lot of physicality. And we become very aware of the physical presence of the waitstaff in this book through much of the sexualized scenes and so forth. I think also however of Tayna’s thumb resembling soggy bread. You have the “warm buttery smell” of Carl’s neck. These characters all seem to physically blend into the restaurants. And not even the seemingly protective plush leather of the check presenter is safe. There’s that credit card scene, where it actually gets lodged into the restaurant. And I’m wondering. What is it about the physical allure or the pull of a restaurant? I mean, this seems to me just as much of a part of it in both your novel and in life. It’s almost this vortex to a certain degree. And I’m wondering how you arrived at that or if you arrived at that or what physicality really means when both waitress and customer go to a restaurant.

Tierce: Right. Well, it is such a basic act. Eating and bringing someone food. And it is the most basic maintenance of the physical. So there’s that kind of level to it. But as a writer, I’m most interested in the sensual. Whatever details there are to be observed in a situation, the sensate ones are the most important to me. And a restaurant is, I think, a more fertile territory for that than a lot of settings because of the food and the smells and the sounds and the people and the touching, the everything of it.

Correspondent: Do you feel that much of the sex in this book — where did this come from? Did this come out of an investigation of the restaurant as physical consumptive space? Not just from experience. I mean, it just seems to become more of this great pull on all the characters. Not just Marie. Although in Marie’s case, it becomes just utterly painful to read and to see what she’s going through. Was sense of space one of the ways that you were able to triangulate her pain and the way that she dealt with it in her life as she get dragged further into this trajectory?

Tierce: Well, I wish I was smart enough to have been that deliberate about it.

Correspondent: Well, instinctively, how did it come?

Tierce: Yeah. Instinctively, it just was an element of restaurant culture that I do know from experience to be ubiquitous and to be just a part of the after hours life of a restaurant and the people who work there. I honestly don’t have a great answer for why that is or what the connection is. But I think it has partly to do with just appetites, with trying to satisfy other people’s appetites and putting yourself completely at the service of other people and then needing to get that back in some way. To convince yourself that you still exist by satisfying some of your own appetites after it’s over.

Correspondent: Being in service to other appetites creates a voracity of your own that is impossible to appease.

Tierce: Right. Exactly.

Correspondent: There are a few moments throughout Love Me Back where Marie subjects herself to self-harm, to cutting. The fondue skewer while her daughter is watching The Cosby Show. Cutting is typically associated with high school girls — at least, that’s how we look at it in society. But as we come to know more of Marie’s backstory in the short and long alternating chapters, we become very aware that Marie’s life has been thrown into this degrading trajectory because, well, she’s been thrown into the wilderness without a handbook. And I think you get at very well how, when we abandon kids or teenagers and throw them into the world, there are these lingering things. I mean, Marie has to learn much of this at the behest of men. And I’m wondering. Do restaurants contribute in any way to being in denial about throwing our kids into really terrible lives like this? And can fiction provide an adequate response to getting people to understand these gruesome but important truths?

Tierce: Maybe. I hope so. I don’t know. I don’t want my daughter to work in a restaurant anytime soon.

Correspondent: Did she ever actually say, when you were working at a restaurant, that she wanted to work in a restaurant just like Marie at all? Just out of curiosity.

Tierce: Yeah. Both my kids have said that when they were little. And it made my heart sink. But at the same time, I have to say that working in restaurants has given me some values and basic skills in life that I need and really treasure. And I wouldn’t give them back for anything.

Correspondent: Such as what exactly?

Tierce: Such as being aware of other people. I mean, when you’re forced to put other people’s needs and desires ahead of your own, no matter how you feel about them, it’s hard to kick that habit. And I’m not saying it makes you an altruistic person. I’m just saying that even on a physical level, when you’re walking down the street you have a different way of moving. You’re not oblivious to people. Because of working in restaurants. And you learn to, as Marie says, anticipate and to consolidate. And those are useful skills for life. And you learn to work really hard. And that alone is useful, I think. And now I’ve forgotten what your question was.

Correspondent: Well, we had a magical massive question of mine.

Tierce: (laughs)

Correspondent: I’m implying magic when it was probably just prolixness on my part. But essentially I was asking, “What is it about restaurants that could cause our kids to be subjected into this vortex?” We were talking about the notion of basically throwing our kids into situations that they’re ill-prepared for. And restaurants almost pick them up where colleges or institutions or libraries or other things, which could in fact help them and prepare them more adequately. I mean, it’s almost like having soldiers go into war to a certain degree.

Tierce: Yeah. I mean, I don’t know. It’s sort of inevitable, especially now. It seems harder and harder for young people to get meaningful work, to get any job at all. And people will always need to eat. So restaurant work will always be available. And if that’s the only place you can launch yourself from, that’s, I think, our fault for not making more meaningful work more available and not making college, for example, more affordable. And I say that as someone who’s still paying down student loans myself and has basically no money saved for college for any of the three children who live in my house. And I value education more than almost anything. But there are some real factors at work as to whether or not any given person can get a higher education.

Correspondent: How does writing help you to come to grips with these particular realities that, I think, all of us face to a certain degree?

Tierce: Well, writing helps me come to grips with all of reality. Just because I don’t really know what I think or how I’ve gotten to what I think until I start writing about it, which I’m borrowing straight from Flannery O’Connor. I think that’s something that she said, but it makes so much sense to me. That’s just how my mind works. I reveal myself to myself through writing.

(Loops for this program provided by nosleeves, ShortBusMusic, kingADZ12, danke, doudei, 40A, leoSMG, ebaby8119, and gutmo.)

The Bat Segundo Show #551: Merritt Tierce (Download MP3)

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* — Please note that, on air, our correspondent stated that the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 2.5 million waiters and waitresses in America. The correct number is 2.4 million and the excerpt text has been corrected to reflect the correct number, which is also stated correctly in this episode’s introduction.

stefanzweig

The Cultural Redemption of Stefan Zweig: Anthea Bell and George Prochnik (The Bat Segundo Show #550)

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This special two hour episode of The Bat Segundo Show details the life and work of Stefan Zweig and may quite possibly the most epic consideration of Zweig ever committed to radio. Zweig is an author I became obsessed with this year not long after a large box showed up at my doorstep containing many Zweig volumes because of an offhand comment I made to a savvy individual while sitting on my stoop. (Let this be a modest parable in publicity and obsession.) This radio program, which became far more ambitious than I intended, is the result of many weeks of reading and serves as a comprehensive overview for Zweig neophytes and experts alike. Zweig is a greatly underestimated writer, despite the fact that he was popular in Austria until the Nazis decimated the nation and even after many literary people have labored very hard to ensure that his work is properly remembered. Zweig’s books can be obtained through NYRB Classics and Pushkin Press.

If you’re new to Zweig, a good place to start is Chess Story. It is a thin and extremely compelling volume and a very good Zweig introduction that will have you wanting to read all the other ones. (Thousands of pages were read for these two interviews.) For adventurous readers, Pushkin Press’s excellent “orange volume” — The Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig — is highly recommended. My thanks to NYRB Classics for igniting a Zweig obsession I never thought I would catch and to Pushkin Press for helping me get in touch with Anthea Bell, one of the best translators working today. (She’s also translated W.G. Sebald and Freud, among many others.)

Anthea Bell is Stefan Zweig’s most renowned translator. Our conversation with Bell begins at the 2:23 mark.

George Prochnik is the author of The Impossible Exile: Stefan Zweig at the End of the World, which is available through Other Press. It serves as an invaluable companion book for Zweig enthusiasts. Our conversation with Prochnik begins at the 26:26 mark.

Guests: Anthea Bell and George Prochnik

Subjects Discussed: The friendship of James Joyce and Stefan Zweig, exiles and “languages above other languages,” Zweig’s obsession with cutting large chunks of text from his work, how complicated narrative structures and smooth language make translation tricky, preventing Zweig burnout, not knowing how much Zweig cut from The Post-Office Girl, how translators sometimes get their hands on a more expansive manuscript, why Bell didn’t translate The Post-Office Girl, coordinating translation of Zweig’s work with other translators, the mythical transatlantic English divide, why readers are suspicious of Zweig because of the popularity during his time, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Michael Hoffman’s preposterous LRB Zweig essay, Hoffman’s charge that Zweig is “the Pepsi of Austrian writing,” why people are eccentrically hostile towards writers who get through to people, eliding sentences and passages from the original manuscript, balancing the spirit of the work and the letter while translating, the tragic ending of Beware of Pity, the novella buried in Beware of Pity (aka Impatience of the Heart), similarities between “The Governess” and The World of Yesterday, the condescending attitude towards Malaysians in “Amok,” how to contend with discomfiting colonial language as a translator, Joseph Conrad, the double standard contained within Confusion, G.K. Chesterton, anti-Semitism in English writing during the time, why Bell doesn’t translate serious poetry, translating a Zweig play for Jewish Book Week performed by Henry Goodman, Zweig’s politics, silent humanism as a response to fascism, W.H. Auden and the Spanish Civil War, the salubrious qualities of delusion, the considerable observations about class trappings in The Post-Office Girl, Hitler turning Vienesse cultural centers into Nazi base camp operations, Nazi resentment, the invasion of privacy as depicted in The Post-Office Girl, Zweig’s prescience on the pervasive way in which people are observed, Heinrich Mann’s notion of “the vanquished being the first to know what history has in store,” Zweig’s ideas of luxurious torture, feeling smothered by bourgeois comforts, Zweig’s views on comic books, the arts as a vehicle for freedom, Zweig’s time in Berlin, the benefits of hanging out with monomaniacs, having Theodor Herzl as an editor, relying on Herzl’s approval, Zweig’s struggles with his Jewish identity, Zweig being mocked by Karl Kraus, Kraus’s anti-Semitism, Zweig’s relentless travel, Zionist discussion between Zweig and Martin Buber, Herzl’s funeral, community bound by death, suicide as a motif in Zweig’s fiction, the “happy corpse” notion and Vienesse spectacle, Zweig’s reclusiveness in New York, Zweig being besieged by European refugees after his escape from the Nazis, Zweig’s problems in Petropolis, letters and loneliness, helping people, guilt accompanied by taking on too much responsibility, Beware of Pity as a way for Zweig to bifurcate his emotions, the politics of Beware of Pity, Zweig demanding to know where Walt Whitman’s grave is the minute he hits New York, how Zweig saw Whitman as the connecting threat to America, ineluctable Freudian themes disseminated among Austrian notables, the influence of Emerson on Nietzsche, when the Nazis burned Zweig’s library, Zweig’s gloomy acceptance and his capitulation to anti-culture developments, Berthold Viertel’s observations of Zweig’s manic collecting, Zweig’s invasive remarks at a press conference concerning the Nazis, Zweig’s aspirations to be a “moral authority,” Hannah Arendt’s brutal review of The World of Yesterday, Jules Romain’s valedictory lecture on Zweig’s 60th birthday, Zweig’s moral dilemma of not being able to validate the destruction of life in any form during World War II, the beginnings of Vienesse anti-Semitism, why Vienesse intellectuals underestimated anti-Semitism, Arthur Schnitzler, perverse Vienesse humor, the Dreyfus affair, Englebert Dollfuss’s blunder with the progressives and Austria’s alliance with fascists in the early 1930s, right-wing nationalism, the end of Austrian radicalism after the socialists have fled, Prochnik’s family history in Austria, Zweig and Turkey, the McNally Jackson Zweig panel, Andre Aciman’s dissing of the “Eros Matutinus” section of The World of Yesterday, why even the staunchest Zweig lovers find some work of Zweig’s to dog on, when people read the wrong “first Zweig book,” Zweig’s astonishing polished prolificity, being ranked with major literary figures through the odd metric of what the Nazis decide to burn, appealing to the twee crowd and the reading audience courting despair, Zweig’s suicide, the haunting photo of Stefan and Lotte Zweig after their double suicide, Kate Zambreno’s Heroines, why Lotte Zweig wasn’t just a factotum, attempts to undermine Lotte’s legacy, the Stefan Zweig Collection in SUNY-Freedonia, Duck Soup, Zweig’s biography of Balzac, and unpacking the final moments of the Zweigs.

EXCERPTS FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Both James Joyce and Stefan Zweig were exiles when they met in Zurich. And they got along so well that Joyce lent him his only copy of Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. And Joyce famously said to Zweig, “I would like a language above other languages. A language serving them all. I can’t express myself completely in English without making myself part of a certain tradition.” And I’m wondering. Since you’ve spent a lot of time looking at Zweig’s language, do you think Zweig suffered from the same problem? That as different as Joyce and Zweig were, they were both confronted in their own ways by belonging to a kind of tradition that language enslaved them to some degree.

Bell: Yes, I think you’re right there. And Zweig was himself earlier in his life, he did quite a lot of translation. And he recommended it as a way for a writer to get better acquainted with his own language, which I find very interesting.

Correspondent: What is it about his language? I mean, I’ve read your translations. I’ve read the translations of various others, such as Phyllis and Trevor Blewitt, Joel Rotenberg, and all that. And yet the romantic feel and the class and the despair of Zweig’s stories still manages to come out in much the same way. What is it about Zweig’s German that creates these parallels? And what do you do to find your own spin as a translator?

Bell: He was very, very scrupulous about his use of language. And as you probably know, he cut a great deal from everything he ever wrote. And that is one reason, I’m sure, why he wrote so many novellas. And some of them could easily developed into full-length novels and probably would have done in the hands of many another writer. But he cut and cut and cut, except with Beware of Pity. But he cut so many of the others. He didn’t let them out of his hands. And so he would just cut everything he could and still get what he was saying across. He didn’t want to say too much. And that is, I think, what gives to the irony in his fiction and makes it so compelling.

Correspondent: That’s interesting. I mean, I’m wondering first and foremost how you came to Zweig and what the first story that you translated of his was. It seems to me that you developed a great intimacy with his life and that’s part and parcel with accurately conveying his stories in English.

Bell: Well, the first one that Pushkin Press asked me to translate was the one that is called Confusion in English.

Correspondent: Oh yes.

Bell: The German means Confusion of Feelings, but it’s just Confusion in English. And after that, Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of a Woman.

Correspondent: Yes.

Bell: Which I think is a remarkable piece of female impersonation.

Correspondent: I think it’s a masterpiece, that story.

Bell: He’s very good at getting inside women.

Correspondent: How did you first discover him? And what compelled you to carry on translating him?

Bell: Well, I had read him earlier, in the past. But it was when I got to translate him, you get a completely — well, not a completely different angle, but a much deeper view of a writer when you begin to translate him. There’s an American scholar who I’ve got on my bookshelf — I’m just getting up to look at the title of it. Anyway, he writes that the translation is a particularly intensive form of looting. And I think he’s quite right there. And you do. You get to know something far better as you translate it. Now when I had read, I don’t know how Zweig strikes you reading it, but he looks as if he would be easy to translate. Because it all flows along very lucidly. But he’s difficult as a matter of fact. More difficult than you might think.

Correspondent: What steps do you take to break down his stories? I mean, very often, you see these intriguing narrative structures that begin his stories. I think of, of course, Beware of Pity. I think of Letter from an Unknown Woman. I think of Twenty-Four Hours as well. This notion that you have some person talking about something else, who then talks about something else, who then goes into the past and then possibly creates a letter or sits in a room discussing a story. This is an extraordinarily tricky thing that Zweig does. And I’m wondering. What does this mean for you as a translator from a language standpoint? You mentioned earlier that Zweig took great care with his German. What care do you have to take on top of that to ensure that this meticulous narrative grabs the reader in the same way that it does in the German?

Bell: Well, a translator is always trying to get inside the head of an author. And, of course, it’s very helpful if your author is alive and you can ask him questions. But if your author is dead, well. His favorite adjective, whenever I come across it, is dumpf. And that means dark or the sound. But usually he uses it to mean somber in some ways. Either literally or metaphorically. And whenever I get to that adjective, I think, oh, come on, Stefan! Which sort of dumpf have we got this time? There are layers in that writing. And by always cutting, I feel he was smoothing things together, if you see what I mean.

Correspondent: So you’re saying there’s almost this false cognate situation when you translate Zweig.

Bell: Yes. Yes. He’s a very, very interesting writer to translate. And obviously I enjoy translation. But obviously also it’s when translating somebody who I feel is writing well.

* * *

zweiglotteCorrespondent: Let’s go ahead and start with his very unusual political relationship. He was acutely aware of class trappings. We see this in The Post-Office Girl. But he seemeed to believe that the high culture or the good life could in fact be used to combat forces as nefarious as National Socialism. As you point out, he believed this as late as 1935 and this led him to be mocked later by Hannah Arendt in her brutal review of The World of Yesterday. You point to Zweig’s alliance with Richard Strauss, which backs up this tendency. And certainly much of this grew out of Zweig’s involvement with the Vienesse Secessionists. But how do you feel this approach developed over time? How did exile contribute to this undoing? Was this kind of political incoherence part of it?

Prochnik: I think it’s wonderful what you’re asking and it wraps together a number of different characteristics of him. Intrinsic psychological characteristics and also acquired traits, as it were. I mean, Zweig says explicitly in his memoir when he describes the option that he had at the start of the war to have refused service in a bold gesture. He said, “I don’t mind saying right out that there’s nothing heroic about me and I will evade, wherever possible.” So on the one hand, he had already also made the decision that, somehow or another, he was not going to end up on the battlefield. But he knew that the grand refusal was also beyond him. So part of Zweig’s difficulties, particularly over time when the Nazis, when the ascendency of Hitler and of all of the values for which he was associated became intractable and unavoidable problems. Zweig had already adopted his stance, which was not a stance, however, of pure cowardice. He had a very developed conviction that served his interests and also, I think, spoke to a real belief of his. That it was impossible ultimately to obtain a just, more tolerant world through violence. In other words, even if you were faced with a horrific form of government, a set of ideological beliefs, what he always tried to do was to garner support for his pacifist, humanist positions through positive achievements. He felt that whether through cultural acts of creativity, whether through the arts, or whether through forms of education that were explicitly devoted to promoting tolerance. That by trying to call on people’s better instincts, you ultimately got further than through nefarious denunciation. The reality is that at the very start of the Second World War, in 1939, at least when England declared war on Germany, there was a brief period when he wavered on this and said, “I don’t understand how any young Jew of age can at this point in time not enlist.” And I think at that point Zweig himself would have enlisted to fight. He grasped that Hitler was another problem, another order of destructive intent. But one of the aspects of Zweig’s stories that I find inexhaustibly interesting is the way that he tried to apply lessons of history unsuccessfully. It was not that he was denying history, but what he learned, for example, from the First World War is what madness war is.

Correspondent: We’re talking generally. Not his autobiography. Just his life philosophy.

Prochnik: Exactly. As his evolving life philosophy. He had learned very well the utter ruin to which civilization could tumble as a consequence, even if you had a relatively just aim of setting out with a gun to impose that. And that just didn’t necessarily serve him well in all instances. I mean, W.H. Auden, the poet who Zweig came to know in the summer of 1941 in New York, ran into at least a similar problem. There’s a line from Orwell. This is grossly paraphrasing, but he always knew to be where the trigger wasn’t being pulled. Something like this. That because Auden, who had initially been so supportive of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, had then gone to Spain and seen the humiliation of the Clarets and the destruction of the churches, he was then very resistant to taking up a strong outspoken stance against Hitler at the start of the Second World War, for which Klaus Mann and others really took him to task.

Correspondent: I think what fascinates me about this is this cognizance of what war can do, especially the Jewish identity. It’s there in “The Miracles of Life,” this amazing novella that he writes when he’s only 22, I believe, in 1903. And if he cannot remember the lessons that his apparent subconscious set down in fiction thirty years later, I mean, what accounts for this almost Wodehousian type of obliviousness to war, to anti-Semitism, to being uprooted, to being exiled?

Prochnik: I don’t think he was at all oblivious. And there’s evidence of that in his letters, in particular. But here and there, as well as in the memoir, I think that one of the most important passages in the opening section of that work is something that’s so brief that it’s easy to overlook. It’s where he goes on about “the world of yesterday” and the security in particular and the ways in which everyone in Vienna got along. They only chafed mildly against each other. In this fashion, he was attacked for what seemed a willful gilding, of nostalgiacizing, of an ideal tolerant Vienna that never existed. But in reality, there’s this moment where he says, “This was a delusion, but, if so, how much more of a noble and more fruitful delusion it was.”

Correspondent: It was also his delusion to keep.

Prochnik: It was his decision. Not only delusion, but his decision to keep it.

Correspondent: He was cognizantly myopic.

Prochnik: Well, whether myopic or…I think of it more in terms of his idealization. He talks about the need, particularly in his very interesting biography of Erasmus, for world leaders who hold onto these utopian visions of humanity’s possibilities, even if those must always remain to an extent a myth. Because he says, “If we don’t essentially have overreachers in imagination, we’re never going to get anywhere.” So he uses that term, the delusions of the world of his father, in a very pointed way as a fruitful, fertile delusion. That it leads at least, he says, relative to the slogans being bandied about, when he’s writing this in 1941. So that idea is really interesting about Zweig not as someone who didn’t see, but as someone who saw and saw such ugliness and such abomination unfolding around him. That it seemed ultimately to have more, it humanity was ever going to dig itself out of that ditch, that perhaps it was necessary to paint these pictures of what the world of yesterday had been in such glorious language and scenes, some of which are semi-fabricated. That after the blaze had begun to die down of the conflict, there would be sign posts. Something for humanity to look at as a way of trying to reconstruct a more humane society, a future.

Correspondent: This was his idea of idealism, basically.

Prochnik: I think so. It could actually perform a real world work. And that for me is the critical distinction in terms thinking about what Zweig did or didn’t do. And this comes into your original question. I don’t want to live it without touching on Zweig’s real philosophy of silence, which was a belief that, if someone was screaming horrible forms of abuse at you, that you never really defeated them by trying to scream louder. That in fact it was by adopting a stance of dignity and of disproving by embodying a different set of values to that. The only way to oppose it. And this was something that got him into such difficulties, with the Nazis in particular. Hitler fetishized the notion of hardness. And hardness comes up again and again, literally as a term with different sorts of German words in Mein Kampf, but again and again throughout the rhetoric of Goebbels and Göring and all the main ideologues. Rosenberg. They use this term of hardness to define essentially the ethical worth of the human being. And so Zweig, I’m certain, saw that you can’t oppose hardness with hardness. He felt you oppose hardness with softness, with pliancy, with receptivity, with a set of values that are much more associated stereotypically with feminine values, but with an idea that you came at that obliquely and proved yourself able to essentially to be metamorphic in your character, as opposed to absolutely rigid. It’s an idea with a certain Jewish resonance also. In Jewish thought and history.

vienna1914Correspondent: Sure. But I would argue, especially with a novel like The Post-Office Girl, we see the rigidity reinforced by this woman who goes to a luxurious hotel, is confused with upper-class, who then has to deal with the fact that she can’t pass that way, and is then forced back into this terrible existence where she has to work in this post office. And, oddly enough, the last half of that book sort of becomes, especially with that manifesto at the end — I don’t want to give it away — a very deliberate effort to contend with reality and becomes extraordinarily bleak, devastating, and heartbreaking. And it leads me to wonder how committed Zweig was to his delusion or whether he needed to have certain kind of historical modes or present times with which to oscillate between the delusion that he deliberately courted and the realism he seemed to be aware of with that manifesto at the end of The Post-Office Girl.

Prochnik: That’s interesting. And I like very much how you’re approaching what that book is. I think the remarkable thing about what he achieves in that book is, without saying in so many words that this is what’s happening, he’s giving one of the best explanations we have for how people in Germany and Austria might have adopted these fanatical positions. You pointed to that scene early on, the definitive moment in that book, of setting events in motion for the girl herself at least, when she has a taste of the high life. A taste of how good life can be for those who have money. Really simple. There was such intense interwar poverty in Austria. And people don’t look at that enough. And, in fact, as I’m sure you know, it’s one thing that Zweig was accused of neglecting. But we see how her mean circumstances from this provincial place…

Correspondent: And not even her fault. Because her family actually got a bad rap and she fell into this rote impoverished kind of existence.

Prochnik: Not her fault at all. Then she gets just a hint by visiting this aunt in a glamorous hotel of how wonderful life can be. And then she’s flung back through a series of unfortunate events into the mire of her previous existence. And that gnawing sense of exclusion is something that I think is critical for understanding what the Nazis fed on.

(Loops for this program provided by danke, mmilka, boysurgeon, and 40a. The track “Tom’s Lullaby (with Les Gacuhers Orchestra)” provided through Free Music Archive.)

The Bat Segundo Show #550: The Cultural Redemption of Stefan Zweig (Download MP3)

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The Zombie Adulthood Ideal of A.O. Scott

There is certainly a case to be made against the increasing hostility to anything remotely “difficult” in American culture. Rebecca Mead rightly called out Ira Glass after the This American Life host tweeted “Shakespeare sucks” and opined that the Bard was “not relatable, unemotional.” Last month, the Washington Post published an op-ed written by a dullard named Justin Moyer that was indistinguishable from a small child banging out a spastic screed before his daily Ritalin shot. It began with the sentences, “Jazz is boring. Jazz is overrated. Jazz is washed up.” There is a legitimate sickness in our culture when sitcom experts complain about poptimism and this dreadful neologism is offered as a “cure” for book criticism. Calling someone with highbrow tastes a “snob” is no different from calling some undiscerning underground hip-hop listener a “backpacker” or suggesting that someone should be embarrassed for reading YA. But in shoehorning these problems into some vaguely expressed notion of “adulthood” in The New York Times, A.O. Scott has revealed himself as a flailing prescriptive type who would rather wolf down the few canapés remaining on the plate rather than share what’s left. If you don’t share his vulpine approach, you’re a “child.”

Adulthood, for Scott, means an embittered white male existence where an older woman who wears plastic butterfly barrettes in her hair is an unacceptable cancer to be sneered at and eradicated. He suggests that the adults we now see within culture are “symbolic figure[s] in someone else’s coming-of-age story” and he limits acceptable comic protagonists to people who have “something to fight for, a moral or political impulse underlying their postures of revolt.” (Never mind that Chaplin’s Tramp and Keaton’s Stoneface were essentially hard-on-their-luck guys who acted “morally” or “politically” in their narratives only on occasion and largely by accident.) Scott’s notion of adulthood is a concessional ideal, one that does not wish to learn from the work that gets through to people.

Scott fears that the “perpetual freedom and delight” of reading YA fiction means squeezing out the more “serious” titles and living a relentlessly juvenile life devoted to nothing more than slavish fandom. But this is an especially condescending way of looking at readers. Facebook recently compiled the results of a meme where users tagged each other, listing the “ten books that stayed with you in some way.” Both YA and “serious” titles left memorable impressions on readers. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series took the top position. J.R.R. Tolkien, Suzanne Collins, Madeleine L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis snagged six slots in the top twenty. But readers still care very much about Shakespeare, Anne Frank, Elie Wiesel, Margaret Atwood, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Victor Hugo, Sylvia Plath, Cormac McCarthy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Jack London, and Mark Twain. And they’ll continue to care about great literature as long as we continue to remain passionate about it. It is rather sad and delimiting that Scott cannot fathom a reader who likes both YA and books, much less the possibility of getting readers into YA hooked onto other forms of literature.

To some degree, I sympathize with Scott. When the distinguished indie publisher Coffee House Press spearheaded a Kickstarter campaign for an essay compilation on cat videos, I was skeptical. How could the same house that published J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence, Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, or Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-formed Thing devote itself to such a superficial and ostensibly juvenile exercise? But then I remembered that I had edited and uploaded two cat videos — one that was a Keyboard Cat response to Spock’s melodramatic breakdown in “The Naked Time” and a Nyan Cat video that was in answer to a preposterous Herman Cain commercial. Both exercises were goofy attempts to understand the style of these then popular memes. I wanted to know why something got through to an audience by reverse-engineering it. So who was I to stand in the way of potential cat video scholarship, especially when an essay outlining the rise and popularity of the YouTube genre could lead readers to other thoughtful valleys?

My initial dismay originated from the kind of myopic view that Scott proffers in his essay. I worried that people who wanted to read about cat videos would not have opinions or interest in reading about Syria, ISIS, developments in Gaza, the recent fast food strike, income inequality, drones, journalistic ethics, the history of American imperialism, militarized police and the needless murders of unarmed men, racism, sexism, game theory, #gamergate and the increasing abuse towards women who speak their minds, and any number of important subjects that I can’t stop obsessing over as a thinking adult. On the other hand, if I want other people to care even a soupçon about issues I consider important, then it would be foolish of me not to examine what does get people excited. This is why I have read at least one volume of Harry Potter and Hunger Games. It is why I have played all three Bioshock games. It is why I listened to a One Direction album in full (never again). It is why I tuned into Beyoncé’s performance on the MTV Video Music Awards. Of course, it’s also important for me to read, watch, and listen to the art that people aren’t paying attention to. But if I want to be culturally fluent and communicate with people, then I need to get some baseline on what’s happening. I don’t have to like it. (Indeed, in many cases, I don’t.) But if I despise it, I can always go back to James Joyce, Shakespeare, Maria Bamford’s comedy, Ronna & Beverly, Westlake’s Parker novels, Iris Murdoch, the Marx Brothers, Mark Twain, The Shaggs, Fawlty Towers, The Prisoner, Alison Bechdel, Nina Simone, Charles Mingus, the hilariously misunderstood movie Shoot ‘Em Up, or any of the countless pleasures that keep me happy and inspired. I really don’t care what brow the art is supposed to rest on. Culture is omnifarious. It just has to be good.

Now when a scummy anti-intellectual jackanape proclaims that there is only one type of art to appreciate — whether it be Dan Kois employing his ADD and ample idiocy to protest high art he deems “cultural vegetables” or Ruth Graham telling Slate readers that they need to be ashamed of reading YA (a charge adeptly parried by the Washington Post‘s Alyssa Rosenberg) — it gets in the way of the natural all-encompassing pursuit. It creates a needless lie that something entertaining cannot be found in art or that something artful cannot be found in entertainment. It is precisely the kind of two-tiered, hypocritical approach to cultural engagement that Leslie A. Fiedler, who Scott glowingly quotes from, nailed in his essay, “The Middle Against Both Ends”:

There is no count of sadism and brutality which could not be equally proven against Hemingway or Faulkner or Paul Bowles — or, for that matter, Edgar Allen Poe. There are certain more literate critics who are victims of their own confusion in this regard, and who will condemn a Class B movie for its images of flagellation or bloodshed only to praise in the next breath such an orgy of highminded sadism as Le Salarie de la Peur. The politics of the French picture may be preferable, or its photography; but this cannot redeem the scene in which a mud- and oil-soaked truckdriver crawls from a pit of sludge to reveal the protruding white bones of a multiple fracture of the thigh. This is as much horror-pornography as Scarface or Little Caesear. You cannot condemn Superman for the exploitation of violence, and praise the existentialist-homosexual-sadist shockers of Paul Bowles. It is possible to murmur by way of explanation something vague about art or catharsis; but no one is ready to advocate the suppression of anything merely because it is aesthetically bad. In this age of conflicting standards, we would all soon suppress each other.

Scott can claim import in three notable deaths in Mad Men while avoiding any comparable speculation into the notable deaths in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2. He can bring up the death of television patriarchs, essentially the “adulthood” he covets in culture, but backpedal from articulating it (“this is not really an argument I want to have right now”). He can commend Walter White on Breaking Bad as a seductive monster, but not examine Olivia Pope’s comparable qualities on Scandal. (Scandal‘s last season finale racked up 10.5 million viewers. That’s a tad more than the 10.28 million people who watched “Felina,” the Breaking Bad finale.) Olivia Pope is arguably a “grown-up” character. Is it not fruitful to examine how Shonda Rhimes depicts adulthood in our culture? Or is Scott simply incapable of looking at the world through the eyes of anyone who isn’t a white person? What of the adulthood in Orange is the New Black? Key & Peele? The Bridge? (All of these shows, including Scandal, won the distinguished Peabody Award last year. All of these shows contain adult perspectives that are not presented from the white male side. None of these shows were mentioned by Scott in his essay.)

This dishonest notion of unvoiced Cacuasian privilege recalls Scott’s hostility to Spike Lee earlier this year, which resulted in an appropriately blistering response by Lee. It is not so much “the cultivation of franchises…that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world” that Scott condemns. It is his timidity in confronting his myopia. He will wave a scolding finger at those who don’t fulfill his limited ideal of art as he trashes the “glass brownstone” of anyone trying to depict minorities and subcultures while making art. He cannot seem to value any perspective straying outside “the monument valley of the dying patriarchs.”

A.O. Scott is little more than a reactionary bore holding up a zombie ideal of “traditional adulthood” that involves being a Veblenian consumer too self-respecting “to be idiotic, selfish, and immature as well as sexually adventurous and emotionally reckless.” His essay rightly signals “a crisis of authority,” but it’s too bad he doesn’t have the guts to leave his lawn. He’d probably have a much better time, maybe discovering a few new ways to be adult along the way.

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Giving the Upscale Types the Graphic Novels That They Want

SHOPLIFTER
by Michael Cho
Pantheon, 96 pages

In a recent interview, Michael Cho claimed that his crisp illustrative style developed from reading adventure comic strips from the 1930s and the 1940s. While one sees something of Noel Sickles’s thick shadows fringing his subjects and Roy Crane’s tidy closeup panels in Cho’s work (superbly featured in Back Alleys and Urban Landscapes, a gritty collection of still life illustrations), there remains a fundamental quality missing in Shoplifter: namely, the resounding thump of a human heart.

michaelchoshoplifterThis graphic novel tells the story of Corrina Park, a young woman who works in an advertising agency. There is nothing interesting or unusual about her, unless you believe the occasional pilfering of a magazine from a convenience store to be jaw-dropping criminal mayhem. She complains about an unfulfilled creative life. She spends her evenings in a spacious apartment guzzling down wine and watching television. She listens to her boss quote Khalil Gibran while he steeples his fingers in the hackneyed manner of a corporate stooge smuggled from behind the arras at the last minute. While I was very fond of Corrina’s hissing cat (and what does it say that the only real character with any personality in this dull and pandering volume is an animal?), I could not find any open nook in my warm and expansive heart for this extraordinary listless protagonist. Corrina is no different from millions of young bourgie aspirants whinging throughout North America. If I wanted this kind of vanilla and unadventurous narrative, I’d spend two insufferable hours being barraged by other people’s First World problems at the Whole Foods overlooking the Gowanus Canal.

Cho certainly has the chops to transpose his observations onto the page. A hip bestubbled specimen named Ben offers a perfectly complacent and beery look when he says, “Yeah, you too, Corrina,” at a party. When Cho populates his frames with strangers, especially on subways and at the party, there is a feral yet controlled quality to his illustrations. I also appreciated the deliberately cramped framing at the convenience store, almost as if we are witnessing the action through an impossibly placed surveillance camera. But it’s maddening that his characters lack the dimension to match the artwork.

Michael Cho is a man who does not court danger in any way. Even Shoplifter‘s denouement plays out like a didactic game of Whac-A-Mole, with its shopworn trope of a shopkeeper with a heart of gold. Yet at least one middlebrow hack wheezing in Los Angeles has risibly suggested that Cho is “operating out of a tradition,” without remembering the degree to which 20th century artists were persecuted for their “unwholesome” tales. As astutely documented in David Hajdu’s The Ten-Cent Plague, comic book artists faced professional and criminal punishment, as well as charges of contributing to “juvenile delinquency,” simply because they had the effrontery to tell visual stories that were odd or weirdly imaginative. It’s bad enough that the contemporary fiction market has become saturated with mediocre narratives of privileged people blogging or vacationing in Europe, but do we have to flood the comics market with this gutless junk as well?

Now that comics have become widely accepted, with unscrupulous sharks in suits sauntering through San Diego’s relentless cacophony to snatch up any young pup who can make them a few easy bucks, I’m wondering why someone as talented as Michael Cho has willfully ignored the fiercer tradition that made comics fun in the first place.

ipadread2

Battling the Digital Babysitter: The Case for Reading and Curiosity

BORN READING
by Jason Boog
Touchstone, 336 pages

On November 27, 1960, only a few months after Green Eggs and Ham was published, Dr. Seuss called for a movement more modest than the Ham and Eggs pension drive. Seuss argued that “children’s reading and children’s thinking are the rock bottom base upon which this country will rise. Or not rise.” He was deeply concerned about the increasing junk being published under the guise of juvenile fiction and he rightly pointed out how children were “eagerly welcoming the good writers who talk, not down to them as kiddies, but talk to them clearly and honestly as equals.” (In the same manifesto, the good Theodore Geisel also promulgated the fanciful claim that he was “mayor of La Jolla,” but this hardly detracts from his salient points.)

Eight years before this, Seuss had written another essay on how people laughed less as they grew older, with the fun “getting hemmed in by a world of regulations.” Yet even Seuss’s imagination could not have foreseen our world of digital devices, with the horrifying 2011 video of a one-year-old baby flipping through a physical magazine, her hand squeezing on fixed text and hoping to push it across a malleable vortex, and with her little fingers, yearning for any toy, trying to flip a photo because she believes that the page is a tablet. The parent, with the toxic cruise control bravado of a privileged Google Bus commuter who refuses to see the world beyond his soy vanilla latte and gluten-free muffin, offers the smug, self-congratulatory, and ire-inducing caption, “For my 1 year old daughter, a magazine is an iPad that does not work. It will remain so for her whole life. Steve Jobs has coded a part of her OS.”

With tablets and smartphones increasingly replacing television as the screen-based babysitter of choice for the overtaxed parent, we have very little knowledge on what this will mean for the next generation of readers and thinkers. With Common Core literary standards introducing preposterously dogmatic regulations (“Retell stories, including key details, and demonstrate understanding of their central message or lesson” reads one such farcical instruction) into classrooms with the same blindly faithful haste as the digital devices, any reliable advocate for imagination and salutary tomfoolery is left to wonder if we are preparing a generation that will surrender its wonder and humor earlier, without the pull of palpable paper to trigger some potential to raise this broken nation.

As a childless man often on call for friends with kids who demand yet another vivacious in-home performance of my free-form vaudeville show, I didn’t realize how much I cared about any of this until I read Jason Boog’s thoughtful Born Reading. (I also recommend Boog’s recent appearance on Colin Marshall’s excellent podcast, Notebooks on Cities and Culture, which discusses many of the issues in the book.) Boog harbors no illusion that we can go back to the analog ways, but he has gone out of his way to document his reading experiments with his daughter, Olive. He recognizes the overcrowded field of parenting handbooks, pointing out in the book’s early pages that he won’t be offended if the time-challenged parent doesn’t read beyond the introduction. But even with the book’s self-help thrust with sections devoted to a “Born Reading Playbook,” Boog’s volume is worth considering as a whole. Boog is candid enough to cop to enjoying Don Ho’s kitschy ditty “Tiny Bubbles,” but he also recognizes the nefarious ways that diabolical software developers sneak hypnotic advertisements into apps that are ostensibly intended to “educate.” We often forget this Faustian bargain, if we even bother to remember it at all.

The smartphone is only seven years old and the iPad, at the age of four, is only a year away from entering kindergarten. How are these new and ubiquitous technological tools shaping our real and decidedly more irreplaceable children? Boog rightfully points out, through the statements of Lisa Guernsey, that the conversations that adults have with their children before the age of two are more valuable than any interactive bauble. If a parent is too beleaguered, perhaps she can find a bedtime solution with the physical book, with its promise of enticing worlds beyond the real, its firm hold requiring neither wi-fi nor batteries, and its manifold possibilities for acting out stories. Last year, in a well-publicized report, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that parents discourage media exposure for children under the age of two. The AAP also suggested that children over that age should never spend more than two hours in front of a screen. Yet there remains the ineluctable lure of the digital babysitter. Put your kid in front of a screen playing mindless entertainment and, voila, even you too can get a few household chores done! But because the new screens are portable and more regularly used, even bright children such as Olive are tempted to imitate their parents, often resulting in workaround mimicry to postpone the inevitable moment when real digital devices will be as close to them as Barbie dolls and Matchbox cars:

Even before she turned two years old, Olive would mimic my cell phone cradle with various phone-shaped objects. I designed a pretend computer out of a cardboard box and an abandoned computer mouse, and Olive would dutifully plug in the mouse and press imaginary buttons on the box just like daddy.

Boog is extremely diligent in limiting his daughter’s digital usage, yet smartphones and tablets also offer undeniable value in summoning an immediate response to a child’s question. Boog describes calling up several images of Brahams after Olive asks what the famous composer looks like. In the analog days, parents offered approximate and often quite wrong answers to a child’s endless string of whys. But now that the highly specific answer has become commonplace thanks to Google, there remains the more troubling problem of how to encourage imagination and curiosity when nobody can be leisurely wrong anymore. Maybe the key for healthy digital implementation among toddlers resides in only using digital devices to promote curiosity. It is certainly an ethos that Boog subscribes to:

Reading for discovery can change the course of your child’s life. You can help him or her maintain a natural curiosity throughout school. This precious flame of scientific wonder can be snuffed so easily. Don’t let your child lose that sense of wonder. Follow up science books and apps with zoo visits or natural science museum trips. Make sure that part of your home library is dedicated to science, gross or scary as it may be.

Providing a toddler with limitless words and endless options for discovery can mean the difference between a child armed the tools to succeed and one who gives up in a tougher world of standardized education. Betty Hart and Todd Risley conducted a famous study revealing a thirty million word gap between low and high income kids. This disparity revealed lasting effects later in life. But with enough active parental participation, it is possible to make a book stick. Boog describes repeatedly reading Dick and Jane and Vampires to Olive, often acting out the story with gusto. The book became such a fixture that Olive demanded the book at all hours.

For cash-strapped parents who don’t have the resources to fill their child’s bedroom with books, there is also the public library. Judy Blume’s oft-quoted suggestion that children should be allowed to read whatever they want holds true even in this hallowed space, which is not merely a secular temple for books, but a place for many kids and parents to come together. If Boog’s book ends on an appropriately grim note when considering the draconian Common Core standards, very much at odds with unhindered reading and free-flowing curiosity, it is nevertheless a welcome reminder that merely asking children to regurgitate knowledge is a recipe for chaos as the gap between the rich and the poor grows to its highest level since 1928. If we want to lift our nation beyond this crippling inequality, then it is vital for us to reject any measure that prevents parents and educators from talking with children as equals. The Seussian ideal will allow the next generation to embrace and challenge knowledge rather than have facts drilled into their heads with all the delicacy of a bureaucrat fumbling around with a jackhammer.

(Image: mbeo)

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Darren Wilson Named as Michael Brown Shooter; Photos and Text of Police Report

At a Friday morning press conference, Darren Wilson was named as the police officer who killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, 2014.

Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson, who was visibly nervous and refused to answer questions from reporters, uttered the name, along with a few sketchy details about Brown being stopped because he was a robbery suspect. Jackson had arrived late, with CNN reporting that he had consulted with legal counsel beforehand. Newsweek‘s Alexander Nazaryan noted that no reason had been offered to reporters for Jackson’s delay. On a FOX 2 raw feed, Jackson was reported hiding behind a van before approaching the mike. And when the time came for the Ferguson Police to distribute the appropriate packets to press, there were not enough to go around. The Ferguson Police Department distributed the first copies to reporters who had filed Sunshine requests. But the police did not provide an online link to the heavily redacted police report.

When Jackson fled from the microphone, several angry voices could be heard over the FOX 2 raw feed, with one unidentified man shouting, “There goes the trust again!”

Huffington Post Justice Reporter Ryan J. Reilly was good enough to take pictures of the press packet on Twitter. I have transcribed the two pages of the heavily redacted report that Reilly uploaded, along with the page of surveillance photos which the police have used to justify the charges against Michael Brown.

Here are the surveillance photos:

michaelbrownpictures

* * *

Here is the first page of the police report that Reilly scanned (and my transcription):

fergusonpolicereport-pageone

Ferguson Police Department
222 S Florissant Road, Ferguson, MO 63135

Officer/Incident Report

Report Date:
08/09/2014 11:51

Type of Incident
ROBBERY (F)
2ND—STRONGARM–CONVENINECE STO

Complaint No.
I4-12388

Case Status:
EXCEPTIONALLY
CLEARED

Supplemental Report:

Supp No.
0001

Date/Time:
8/11/2014 11:31 AM

ID
[Redacted]

Officer Name
[Redacted]

SUPPLEMENT

Pursuant to the original report, the following information is pertinent. On Monday 08/11/2014 @ 0900hrs, I was assigned the investigation.

_________ had come out of the restroom and returned to the counter where she observed Brown tell ____________________, that he (Brown) wanted several boxers of cigars. As ______________ was placing the boxes on the counter, Brown grabbed a box of Swisher Sweet cigars and handed them to Johnson who was standing behind Brown. ________________ witnessed ______________ tell Brown that he had to pay for those cigars first. That is when Brown reached across the counter and grabbed numerous packs of Swisher Sweets and turned to leave the store. ________________ then calls “911”. Meanwhile, ______________ comes out from behind the counter and attempts to stop Brown from leaving. According to _________________, _______________ was trying to lock the door until Brown returned the merchandise to him. That is when Brown grabbed _____________ by the shirt and forcefully pushed him back in a display rack. _________________ backed away and Brown and Johnson exited the store with the cigars.

(Cover Pages Only)

Printed 08/14/2014 1419

* * *

Here is the second page of the police report that Reilly scanned (and my transcription):

fergusonpolicereport-pagetwo

Ferguson Police Department
222 S Florissant Road, Ferguson, MO 63135

Officer/Incident Report

Report Date:
08/09/2014 11:51

Type of Incident
ROBBERY (F)
2ND—STRONGARM–CONVENINECE STO

Complaint No.
I4-12388

Case Status:
EXCEPTIONALLY
CLEARED

I then had the opportunity to review a copy of the video surveillance footage which captured the following events. The date and time stamps correspond to the video footage provided. The entire incident takes place on Saturday, 08/09/2014 between 11:52:58 hrs and 11:54:00 hrs.

Camera 3 – Exterior camera mounted on southwest corner of building, pointed east to record side of building and parking lot.

Camera 6 – Interior camera mounted on ceiling to record entry/exit doors.

Camera 7 – Interior camera mounted on ceiling to record counter/register.

The video reveals Brown enter the store followed by Jackson. Brown approaches the register with Johnson standing behind him. ___________________ can be seen in the background walking from the restroom to behind the counter. Brown hands a box of Swisher Sweets to Johnson. An apparent struggle or confrontation seems to take place with Brown, however it is obscured by a display case on the counter. Meanwhile, Johnson sets the box he was handed back on the counter. Brown turns away from the counter with another box of Swisher Sweet cigars and walks towards the exit door. ____________ then comes out from behind the counter, with what appears to be a set of keys in his hands. ______________ then stands between Brown and the exit door. Brown, still holding a box Swisher Sweets in his right hand, grabs _______________ by his shirt with his left hand. Brown aggressively pulls ________________ in close to him and then immediately pushes him back in to a display rack. Johnson continues out the door and out of camera frame. ______________, no longer between Brown and the door, stops and watches Brown as he walks towards the exit door. Brown then abruptly turns back around and advances on ________________. Brown towers over ______________ appearing to intimidate him. Brown then backs around and walks out of camera view.

It is worth mentioning that this incident is related to another incident detailed under Ferguson Police Report # 2014-12391 as well as St. Louis Police Report # 2014-43984. In that incident, Brown was fatally wounded involving an officer of this department. I responded to that scene and observed Brown. After viewing Brown and reviewing this video, I was able to confirm that Brown is the primary suspect in this incident. A second person, also at that scene, identified himself as being with Brown. That person was later identified as Dorian Johnson. After observing Johnson and reviewing the video I confirmed he is the second suspect in this incident.

A disc containing the 911 call made by ___________________ was obtained from Police Communications.

Reporting Officer

Approving Officer ( I )

[UPDATE: CNN has a PDF of the full police report.]

ferguson2

On Ferguson, Michael Brown, and Sanctioned Murder in America

Michael Brown was murdered by the Ferguson Police Department. There is no other word that can sufficiently describe killing an unarmed man, especially one who didn’t have a criminal record. Witness Dorian Johnson stated that an officer whom the Ferguson Police refuses to identify pointed a gun at Brown’s head instead of containing the situation with a cool head. Brown was executed. The civilians rightfully protested. Now the police fire upon everyone with rubber bullets and tear gas.

The only detail that the police has revealed about the unidentified officer is that he was treated for swelling on the side of his face, but this is a woefully insufficient explanation. Just as instituting a no-fly zone “TO PROVIDE A SAFE ENVIRONMENT FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT ACTIVITIES” is a betrayal of the essential trust needed between police and citizens during a volatile time. Just as the Department of Defense’s militarization of police departments turns jurisdictional resources into a cruel cartoonish joke. Just as police muzzling and arresting veteran reporters like The Washington Post‘s Wesley Lowery as he was trying to piece together the maelstrom, with the preposterous rap of “resisting arrest” applied to a fair and innocent journalist holding his hands up high and terrified, is a desecration of civility, understanding, and free expression.

Murder. There is no other word to describe what happened to Michael Brown and what is now happening to our essential liberties. Just as there is no other word for what the New York Police Department did to Eric Garner in July; homicide was, after all, what the New York medical examiner concluded.

We wouldn’t have to use the word “murder” if these purported upholders of the law were responsible enough to own up to their mistakes or if our elected officials displayed swift and peremptory leadership. But they can’t. President Obama issues hollow statements. Governor Jay Nixon has displayed gutlessness and incompetence with his unfathomable silence. (Nixon broke his Marcel Marceau routine on late Wednesday night, asking for calm and urging “law enforcement to respect residents & press,” well after the time for conduction had passed.) The baleful mess in Ferguson, Missouri, especially harrowing in this YouTube video showing excessive force on peaceful protesters, has demonstrated that the American system is broken, that we are a nation that refuses to learn from its mistakes and that prefers to remain in denial about its deadliest problems.

We are now at a crucial point in history — one just as important as the epoch before Miranda rights were established — where we must understand that we have the power to say no, to not accept further abuse of police power, and to demand accountability and responsibility from callous ruffians who believe they can get away with sanctioned murder under the “serve and protect” lie. Because if we do not, we will come to take on yet another barbaric regularity of American life, one that an entire generation could grow up accepting without ever knowing another way.

[8/14/14 UPDATE: On Thursday afternoon, Governor Nixon pulled the St. Louis Police Department from Ferguson, replacing them with the Missouri Highway Patrol. MHP Captain Ronald Johnson has been overseeing operations with a cool head. Lowery reported that Johnson marched in the largely peaceful protest, with Johnson saying that he will tolerate neither looting nor "citizens not having ability to speak their minds" or having their rights violated. This is a much-needed and exemplary step in the right direction. The question now is whether the bad cops who attacked journalists and protesters will be named and brought to the appropriate justice.]

robinwilliams

An Elegy for Robin Williams and a Plea for Compassion

When you feel the earnest desire to kill yourself — as I did for about five minutes during the evening of June 26, 2014 — you truly believe that, no matter how kind and sharp and talented you are, there just isn’t a place for you on this planet. That none of the solicitude or the careful work or the unique qualities you offer the world can ever atone for the concatenation of persuasively exaggerated sins buttressed by a dark and singular and unforgiving demon who wants to pull you down, one smashing away at the beatific inner town that you’ve spent decades carefully constructing.

Who knows how many beasts and wraiths Robin Williams confronted? One was too many. This was a terrible and needless loss that, irrespective of Williams’s talent and stature, demands that we take several steps back. We know that Williams was trying to sell off his Napa Valley estate, that he had suffered an unsuccessful return to television (The Crazy Ones was canceled after only one season), and that, sometime in July, when he was trying to seek help for his pain in Minnesota, a picture of Williams at Dairy Queen made the rounds on on the Internet. He’s standing with his hands crossed, the obliging professional trying so hard to sustain a dutiful grimace when there were bigger stakes. All Williams wanted was an ice cream cone, one small step back into the hearts of those he entertained for decades.

There’s a moment at the end of World’s Greatest Dad, a highly underrated film by Bobcat Goldthwait containing one of Williams’s last great performances, in which Williams played an aspiring writer named Lance Clayton who covers up the embarrassing death of his son Kyle. Nobody cares about Kyle’s suicide until his note, penned by his father, is discovered and published in the school newspaper. Lance pushes the lie further by writing a phony journal, which attracts the attention of the prospective publishers that he had been coveting for years. It’s the devilish fatalism that happens far too often in America: the fifteen minute fluke propped up instead of someone who works eighty hour weeks and pays his dues, the middle-aged man pushed aside for the young life unlived, an act of unpardonable deceit promulgated for a notch up the ladder after years of honest labor.

In the film’s final scene, Lance confesses the truth to the school, saying via voiceover, “I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.” What makes Goldthwait’s film and Williams’s performance so meaningful is how this declaration forces the audience to sympathize with the disgraced outcast nobody wants to deal with. Philip Seymour Hoffman, another formidable talent who killed himself, was also good at playing these pariahs, whether Allen in Happiness or Truman Capote. There are also resonances with David Foster Wallace, who also killed himself. One is reminded of the story, “The Depressed Person,” in which Wallace’s titular character sees her group of supportive friends vanish as the depression continues to corrode her core. There was something essential that these three mighty artists hid behind their humor, the understanding that America’s alleged desire for misfits inevitably collides against a hard and self-protective barrier. That all three suicides are as cruelly permanent as the emotional impact of their best work says something, I think, about what we now demand of artists and people in America.

Suicide doesn’t allow for heroes. Nor do the less tragic cousins: the attempt or the ideation. The person wishing to help, even when she likes the person, can often feel a begrudging duty or guilt that she does not care enough. The person who comes close to killing himself, which is a feeling not unlike being swallowed by a buckling whale with other concerns on his mind diving without mercy into a chilly deep sea, accumulates endless emotional debt that he can never repay, even as he seeks help and works very hard to stay positive and understand his illness, often with the callous stigma that he is permanently damaged. All parties come to know these terrible contradictions.

But the only truly common bond that all parties can have is compassion.

There has been a goodhearted clarion of calls on Twitter after Williams’s suicide, entreaties to anyone on the edge to call a hotline and know that they are loved. But suicide and depression aren’t nearly so pat, especially in a hungry and vituperative digital world that awaits some flawed figure to expose some chink in the armor (an appearance at Dairy Queen or, in my case, two deleted tweets reflecting a great deal of pain that I have spent much of the past six weeks sobbing out of me).

Williams will have the comedy. He will always be remembered for seizing the day, whether in the only Saul Bellow film adaptation ever made or as John Keating in Dead Poets Society. But I’ll remember him for the indelible, self-loathing characters he played so well in Cadillac Man, Death to Smoochy, One Hour Photo, and World’s Greatest Dad. There was a dark and tormented man inside those performances that wanted to reveal the contradictions of our nation and that demanded a grander compassion, one more vital to our humanity than shouting some feel-good catchphrase while standing at the top of a desk.

swornvirgin

On Sworn Virgins and Albanian Tradition

SWORN VIRGIN
by Elvira Dones
Translated by Clarissa Botsford
& Other Stories, 256 pages

He will wear a hat with a tight fit and he will smoke and drink with formidable camaraderie. As zot shtëpie (“head of household”), his devotion to besa, the Albanian word of honor, is so strong that he will fight a bloodfeud to the bitter end. But his commitment to hospitality is just as fierce. He has been known to walk a stranger to the edge of town, ensuring a safe journey. And he may be a “sworn virgin” — a former woman who becomes the male household head in exchange for a vow of chastity, dressing as a man to earn the respect granted to a man, no different from any other zot working in the mountains.

Sworn virgins, who are found mostly in northern Albania, act and carry on as men, but do not undergo any surgical change. In 2000, it was estimated that there were 100 sworn virgins left in Albania. (Stana Cerovic, pictured above, is believed to be the last sworn virgin in Montenegro.) Antonia Young’s incredibly helpful book on the subject, Women Who Become Men, reveals that the vajzë e betuar is often raised to lead a family, with the choice to become patriarch made sometime after puberty. Western fiction readers may know of the custom from Alice Munro’s story, “The Albanian Virgin,” published in the June 27, 1994 issue of The New Yorker. But while the sworn virgin comes with some cultural relativism, especially when considering the subservient role of women in rural Albania, the underlying rites are quite complicated. The bride and the groom do not meet, with flirtation considered a boorish quality for a man. The bride sheds demonstrative tears when she leaves her family home and, as a wife, a woman is expected to perform quite a bit of labor, often more than the man. Custom dictates that a family in northern Albania, which is often as large as twenty members, cannot survive without a male leader. But it is this fascinating sworn virgin loophole, presented in the Kanun, that creates a uniquely Albanian fluidity.

Elvira Dones‘s engaging novel, Sworn Virgin (translated from Italian by Clarissa Botsford and regrettably the only Dones novel available in English), not only unpacks these fascinating gender questions, but transplants the issue between two nations. Dones’s protagonist Hana Doda (known as Mark back in Albania) moves to Rockville, Maryland, to land a job and begin a new life. Yet her new country’s demands present an altogether different identity crisis:

On the outside she looks almost like a woman. What’s missing is her vision, the point of view from which she is supposed to read the world. When she observes people, Hana does not see a woman or a man. She tries to penetrate the unique spirit of the individual, she analyzes their face and eyes, she tries to imagine the thoughts hiding behind those eyes, but she tends to avoid thinking about the fact that these thoughts are inextricably linked to the male or female ego. Women think like women. Men? Well, the answer is obvious. She’s only just realizing now that for a long time she has had to consider things from both points of view.

In the context of an America contending with greater and necessary LGBT acceptance, Hana’s search for “the unique spirit of the individual” is quite liberating. Would Project Runway mentor Tim Gunn feel as “conflicted” about trans models if he weren’t so committed to looking at the world with a regressive parallax view? Is it possible that an exceptional custom originating from tradition is more tolerant on this question than our purportedly democratic republic?

Dones alternates between Hana’s early years in America in 2001-2003 and her time in Albania, in which she becomes a sworn virgin (1986, 1996). We learn that the Albanian epithet malokë (“mountain yokel”) is not unlike “queer” in America: a vicious insult appropriated by its victims as a term of pride. We see that Hana’s family is committed to pretense, with her Uncle Gjergj presented as “an intelligent man but he often pretends that he’s not.” Gjergj is near death. Neither Gjergj nor Hana want to see the medication that goes down his gullet and keeps him alive. There is also the fragile health of Aunt Katrina, which proves more swift and fatal than Gjergj’s. Hana becomes torn in these early years of living life independently and fulfilling her inevitable familial obligation as a patriarch.

When Dones drops us back into Hana’s years in America, we see how swiftly Hana has changed, wondering if it will be easy for her to establish yet another new life. She must contend with shaving her legs and skirts that are too wide and operates having “no real experience of femininity,” and she must figure out the new rules of the game before her job interview. These assiduous concerns help Dones’s novel become more than a fresh spin on the immigrant novel. Is Hana working for a chain bookstore a sufficient substitute for Mark’s dutiful tasks as a shepherd keeping up a kulla (“family home”)? Which nation offers the greater conformity? What technicalities are available in America’s unmemorialized Kanun?

Dones succeeds greatly in devising a kind of Rorschach test around these demarcations. We are left with the consoling thought that no matter how traditional or boundary-breaking one’s temperament is, you can’t stop body and soul from expressing very specific desires on being alive.

prison

Native Sons in Philadelphia: Why We Need More Novelists Like Jean Love Cush

ENDANGERED
by Jean Love Cush
Amistad, 272 pages

There are petulant Caucasians who stretch out their soft, unfettered, and upper middle-class hands for the gluten-free, vegan muffins at their cozy corner bakery when they’re not waiting for the afternoon dacha trip to stave off the high stress of a Tuesday morning hot yoga session. And then there is the rest of America: those who try to make ends meet with a minimum wage job and little more than a high school education, families crowded inside small apartments who go to bed with the nightly reports of gunfire, and young African-Americans who cannot run into a cop without being handed some bogus rap (and, in the case of Eric Garner, killed for wanting to be left alone). One world remains blissfully unaware of the other. The other world must contend with its stories being excised from mainstream culture, even as it must stifle its anger at being marginalized or erased altogether from vital conversations.

One would think that the variegated possibilities of literature would be robust enough to bridge this awful gap, but we have seen whitewashed book covers, YA characters of color doomed to what Christopher Myers refers to as “the apartheid of children’s literature,” bestselling African-American authors told that there is no audience for their work, and racism still lingering in the science fiction world. Yet Jean Love Cush’s Endangered, a powerful work of fiction that, in a more civilized and inclusive world, would be discussed at book clubs and held up in independent bookstores as a vital glimpse inside neglected truths, has been completely ignored by newspapers and abandoned by purportedly enlightened tastemakers fond of uttering the defensive words “Some of my best friends are…” at cocktail parties.

The book, set just after Obama’s inauguration, centers around a fifteen-year-old boy in Philadelphia named Malik Williams who, like any black kid in the wrong place at the wrong time, is arrested because he vaguely matches the general description of a homicide suspect. Malik’s mother, Janae, who works as a cafeteria worker, tries to rescue her son between work stints she is barely able to reduce to half-shifts. She cannot afford an attorney who can offer the appropriate defense on her meager salary. The prosecution wishes to try Malik as an adult. Malik’s story is picked up by the media, who wishes to spin his narrative into a fearful vision of cities gripped by violence, complete with armchair academics insisting that trying children as adults is the only way to combat the problem. (On this point and many others, Cush is dead on. It is quite easy to find these specious arguments for “responsibility” if you poke around FOX News.) As Janae becomes a more uncomfortably visible participant in her son’s story, she comes to understand how the media has built a regressive belief culture on racial bias:

As a young girl, she’d come to believe that it was black men who committed all the crimes. They were the ones who were identified in the news stories by the anchors and reporters she’d trusted. Even when a news story left out the racial description, it was easy to fill in the blank and assume the perpetrator was black because of how many other times the bad guy was identified was black. Now, Janae knew that the images she saw on the news, the stories they chose to report on, and even the news angle had more to do with the story the reporter wants to tell or the agenda of the network than a deep-seated passion to get at the truth.

In a nod to Richard Wright’s Boris Max, Cush introduces Roger Whitford, a prominent white human rights attorney who helps Janae with her case. But there is also Calvin Moore, a black attorney who worked his way into a big firm out of the ghetto, blackmailed by one of the partners into becoming involved in the case “that we cannot have any part of because of the potential fallout from it.” Both Whitford and Moore work under the guise of the Center for the Protection of Human Rights, a controversial organization offering the provocative thesis that the Endangered Species Act should be extended to black boys, under the theory that nearly every statistic shows that young blacks are fated to be massacred.

Many of the stats that Cush conveys through her characters can actually be backed up. Last October, The Sentencing Project submitted a harrowing report to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, revealing that one in three African American males born today can expect to find themselves in prison at any given time in their lives. The report (PDF) cited black youth’s disproportionate incarceration. Blacks are 16% of all American children, yet make up 28% of juvenile arrests. According to the report, which relied on government statistics and academic scholarship, this unpardonable disparity cannot be pegged solely on poverty and a higher crime rate. Implicit racial bias, predicated upon overworked cops making impulsive decisions and the majority of our nation associating African-Americans with such modifiers as “dangerous,” “aggressive,” “violent,” and “criminal,” is also to blame.

So there’s something refreshingly risky and necessary in Cush unpacking her Endangered Species Act premise. In fact, the idea is not unique to Cush. In 2012, D.L. Hughley made a mockumentary (see clip above) in which he lobbied to declare African-Americans an endangered species. In February 2014, Wayne Brady was courageous enough to declare that “the young black man is becoming an endangered species.” Like caustic headlines from The Onion, perhaps these dialogues in comedy and in fiction presage real events.

But the concept also means comparing young African-Americans to animals — a prospect that Janae isn’t especially thrilled about and one that bears uncomfortable resonances to Anthony Cumia’s racist Twitter tirade and 911 operator April Sims’s similarly atavistic sentiments. The suggestion here is that pursuing a severe protective measure for blacks in response to escalating violence could involve playing into the remaining racist sentiments held by those in power.

Endangered is not a perfect book. It is riddled with some undercooked prose (“It was as if fire had darted from her eyes and mouth and singed the hell out of him” and beads of sweat used too often as a shorthand description for tension). But the book crackles with challenging considerations one does not often see in contemporary fiction and is greatly helped by the undeniable momentum of its thrilling story, even if its socially conscious melodrama results in some extraordinary conduct by a judge late in the book. Nevertheless, Endangered is a truer, braver, and more emotional novel than most of the lumpy oatmeal pumped out of the Brooklyn bourgie mill. I would rather read a slightly flawed yet highly visceral book going for broke than another myopic and overly praised entry in the Brooklyn latte genre, and I suspect so would most of America.