Friday, August 31, 2012

What Next for St. Mark's Bookshop?

St. Mark's Bookshop exterior

Almost two weeks ago, St. Mark's Bookshop, the 35-year-old independent East Village and New York City treasure that was nearly ousted from its home last year, met its crowd-sourcing goal on Lucky Ant, and raised the $23,000 it was seeking to show potential landlords that it did have the money for a down-payment on a new lease. (According to the Lucky Ant page, the store has now raised about $28,000.) It will be vacating its old home, no matter what.

The current landlord, The Cooper Union, has joined the ranks of Manhattan's rapacious speculators, and will be raising the bookshop's monthly rent to that outrageous $23,000 level, meaning the store would have to generate $276,000 in yearly sales just to pay the rent, all other costs--payroll and benefits, book orders, utilities, insurance, etc.--notwithstanding.  That a private, not-for-profit educational institution would be doing this to a long-time cultural landmark that benefits not only general readers but its own faculty and students is appalling, but appeals to The Cooper Union apparently have gone nowhere, and so St. Mark's must find a new home, lest it suffer the fate of so many other local independent booksellers, like The Gotham Book Mart, Christopher Street Books, A Different Light, and University Place Bookstore, to name just a few, that exist now as bookmarks in a future literary history of the city.

All of the communication I've received from St. Mark's has been quite appreciative of patrons' and the larger community's support, and suggested to me, at least, that things perhaps weren't so bleak. This past weekend and then again earlier in the week I had to grab some books for my classes, and what I saw in the store contradicted this somewhat, or at least complicated the picture. When I stopped in on the weekend, there was some traffic, but nothing close to what I imagined given the enthusiasm I'd seen online for the store. Rows of shelves stood stripped bare of books, some sections, like fiction, critical studies, and philosophy particularly denuded. Then when I met up with a friend there before lunch this week, it was equally sepulchral, which led me to ask one of the staff members about the move, and she politely told me that the situation was "up in the air," she didn't know what was coming, and that the store would be in contact with its supporters.

I snapped a few pictures of the moribund space. I hope the owners can find a new, affordable spot and long-term lease soon, though I know it will be very--no, extremely--difficult given the realities of Manhattan real estate these days. But the St. Mark's Bookshop has long been a vital repository and a cultural icon, and its loss would be a serious blow to the intellectual and creative ecology of New York; Manhattan may be able to thrive economically on luxury condo buildings and hotels, ultra-elite boutiques and boîtes, and a service industry catering to the 1%, but it will be a drastically different place from what it has been for the preceding 300 years, becoming an overstuffed Dubai with the memory of its once vibrantly diverse intellectual and creative past but a waning fragrance for those passing through. If you haven't already offered financial support to St. Mark's, please consider doing so at the Lucky Ant link above, or sending them moral support via

In the front door window, St. Mark's Bookshop
In the front door

Empty shelves in St. Mark's Bookshop
Where once stood full shelves of critical studies books

Empty fiction shelves, St. Mark's Bookshop
Part of the fiction section

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Ives House Spared + Zweig Brazilian Home Now Museum

The Charles Ives House in Redding, Connecticut
Danbury, Connecticut native Charles Ives (1874-1954) was one of the most original composers the US has produced, a genius to the ears of Arnold Schoenberg, another genius and his exact contemporary, and to those of many others, including Gustav Mahler, Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Stokowski, and José Serebrier. Like his soundworld, with its competing and often clashing layers of melody and harmony, rhythms and tonalities, Ives's composing career was idiosyncratic; he spent most of his daily working life as an insurance company executive in New York, and allegedly did not compose anything for the last 17 years of his life. Up till that point, however, he produce a slew of works that challenged the conventions of his era, and even today many of them strike the listener with their strange, otherworldly qualities. Ives's final home outside New York was in Redding, Connecticut, and as of last year, Charles Ives Tyler, Ives's grandson, had placed it on the market, and so it was in danger of being leveled, given the value of the land beneath it, its ramshackle state, and the presence of and desire for much larger homes nearby.

In early August Norman Lebrecht's Slipped Disc music blog posted about cellist and performance artist Zoe Martlew's attempts to alert the public's attention to the house's fate; her efforts and others' quickly stirred supporters, including the Charles Ives Society, based at the University of Illinois, into finding some means of preserving the residence, which still holds some valuable relics of Ives' life there, as Martlew saw when she visited the house with composer and conductor Oliver Knussen. It was here that Ives composed some of his finest and most original music, including the "Concord Sonata" and his radical, almost unperformable Fourth Symphony, which wasn't premiered until over a decade after his death.

Pictures (c) Zoe Martlew/Lebrecht Music & Arts
Pictures (c) Zoe Martlew/Lebrecht Music & Arts
Among the proposed actions to rescue the house was a petition to President Barack Obama (but why not, I wondered, Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy, or, as someone on Lebrecht's blog suggested, the US Representative for that area, James Himes (D-CT) ?). Robert Eschbach, a music professor at the University of New Hampshire, established a Save the Ives House Facebook page. More practicable, it turns out, was finding some Ives fan or fans, or a coalition of them, to buy Ives's house. Now, according to WQXR Radio, it appears that that is happening, with the Charles Ives Society taking the lead in trying to raise the $1.5 million to purchase the house, an 18+-acre estate that also includes a cottage and barn, from Tyler, and Nikola Ragusa also setting up a fundraising page on Indiegogo to raise money as well. 

Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal 
Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal
This is only the first step, though; even if taken off the market and transformed into an artists' retreat, there are further unresolved issues, as WQXR points out, including zoning and related real estate issues; tax status; further funding for renovations and making the house accessible to visitors; the endowment of the "housing complex," as it were; the estate's location on a residential street, and so on. The institution running Ives' birthplace museum in Danbury faced such severe financial problems it had to furlough its tiny staff. The ongoing economic crisis has poses perils for arts institutions of all kinds, and the Ives House in Redding, even if saved from purchase-to-demolition, will still not be out of the woodpile without much, much more support.


@ CSZ Arquivo
Stefan Zweig (@ CSZ Arquivo)

Halfway around the world, on the other side of the Equator, a famous artist's residence, brief though it was, has been preserved. North of Rio de Janeiro, in Petrópolis, the former summer resort city of Brazil's imperial family, the final home of the prodigious Austrian writer and librettist Stefan Zweig (1882-1942) and his second wife Lotte Altmann. It was in this home that Zweig and his wife, in flight from the Nazi regime dominating large swaths of Europe and thus cut off from the world they had known, and despairing for the future, lived for five months, with Zweig finishing his memoir The World of Yesterday; one of his finest works of fiction, The Chess Novella; and his perceptive survey of the country to which he had only just moved, Brazil, Country of the Future, before committing joint suicide. Thus did he terminate what had been one of the major literary careers of the era.  

The Casa Stefan Zweig (CSZ - Stefan Zweig House) received its earliest support shortly after Zweig died, when Brazilian author Raúl Azevedo proposed that the house be turned into a museum to honor the stateless refugee. His own heirs subsequently offered Brazil the contents of his dwelling in London, where he had lived before departing first for New York, and then to Brazil. It was not until over half a century later, however, that fans of Zweig were able to purchase the house and transform it into a museum. The house opened as a Zweig museum and archive, and as a cultural center, on July 29, and is open Fridays through Sundays, 11 am - 6 pm, with free admission. Among the artifacts available for view are 560 volumes, works in the original German, other manuscripts including annotated ones for future works, personal objects, autographed photos from close friends such as Richard Strauss and Sigmund Freud, and some of his extraordinary collection of original musical scores.

The Casa Stefan Zweig © Manfred Grietens
© arquivo

Rather bizarrrely, English Heritage turned down the application to honor Zweig with a plaque on the London house where he lived for five years. In addition to claiming that Zweig's status in Britain was not as high as elsewhere, it also stated that "it was felt that a critical consensus does not appear to exist at the moment regarding Zweig's reputation as a writer and that, as a consequence, it was not possible to be certain of his lasting contribution." During his lifetime up through his flight from the Nazis, his fiction, poetry, plays, histories, belles-lettres, and journalism received both acclaim and a large readership, in Europe, the United States, and South America, to the extent of being turned into major Hollywood films in several cases, and after the death of Strauss's longtime collaborator Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, Zweig wrote two libretti for Strauss's operas, having to do so secretly towards the end because of the proscription against his work laid down by the Nazis. Yet to the British preservationists, Zweig does not rank. Or not highly enough. So be it. A trip to Petrópolis sounds like a far more inviting option anyways.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Phyllis Diller, My Homegirl + Artists Battle for Home in Rio

Phyllis Diller (UPI)
Shortly after my parents moved us from the city of St. Louis to the suburb of Webster Groves and we joined Holy Redeemer Roman Catholic Church, I began attending its parish school. It was a little over half a mile from my house, and there was no bus service, and my parents both worked so they couldn't drive me to school, which meant I had to walk. (This was in the 1970s when such things were a matter of course.) There were two main routes to get there. One took me past a crossroads straight up a long, curving street, over which a train trestle ran--so I literally lived on the other side of the tracks, on the black (with a few white people) side of Webster--until I reached the next main cross street, Lockwood Avenue, which was the main commercial strip of Webster, and on which sat from one end to the other, the old business district (Old Webster), full of stores; the City Hall; the cinema where I saw The Exorcist and Jaws and Star Wars and countless other movies; the Y; Holy Redeemer Church and school; Webster Groves Public High School; Webster University; the Eden Theological Seminary; Nerinx Hall, a Catholic school for girls; and then, where Lockwood turned into Big Bend Avenue began the Old Orchard business district, which also had lots of shops and restaurants. That was the long but safe route. The quicker route took me across the other major cross-street near me, which included crossing a creek, then up through a maze of increasingly nicer neighborhoods, with some very large homes, including one that belonged to the family that owned the Tums factory (and I would learn, as an adult, that it was in this part of Webster that Jonathan Franzen, among others, had grown up), until I reached the back lot and playground of Holy Redeemer.

In the summers I would ride my bike up through this way; during the school year, it was strictly by foot. One of the houses closest to the playground area, on Mason Avenue, was, like the others, imposing, but my new classmates liked to point it out; I was told that it had once been a shocking salmon color. Most of the other homes in this part of Webster were white, dark green, brick, Tudor-style: classy. The house's prior outré coloring was probably apocryphal, but it stuck in my memory. I was also told, by a knowing classmate, that a famous comedian--comedienne--had lived there. I didn't believe it, but I told my parents, and perhaps they knew that this comedian was from St. Louis. I can't recall. Every so often, when I'd pass the house, I'd think of the story of it having been a sight to look at, and how now it was just another house very close to school and across from other large houses that belonged to my classmates, mostly considering how much larger they were than the houses on my side of town. (I had yet to see some of the mansions in other St. Louis suburbs that my future classmates at Priory lived in.) Years later I did learn that the house had belonged to the famous comedian, that she had lived in St. Louis, in Webster Groves, beginning in the 1960s, and that she always considered not just that house, but the area one of her true homes. I am talking about Phyllis Diller (1917-2012), one of the pioneering women of 20th century American comedy, who passed away the other day.  She gave me many occasions to laugh over the years, and the lore of her outrageously painting house is a little story to treasure that I still carry with me. I hope Webster Groves, which was famous for being so representatively middle American it was even the subject of a documentary in the 1960s (16 in Webster Groves) and the setting for a TV show in the 1970s (Lucas Tanner) too sees fit to honor this often unconventional but important figure. She gave America enough laughs, and future comedians new opportunities, to merit it.

More: Jason Zinoman's tribute to Phyllis Diller in The New York Times.


For Rio de Janeiro to host the Olympic Games in 2016, I knew that as in every other place where the Olympics had been held, including the most recent host, London, there would be private and government battles surrounding the economically working-class and poor areas of the city, with the aim of seizing control of them, and Jonathan WattsGuardian article "Rio artistic collective's sweet deal ends as Olympics development spreads" confirms one example, of which there certain to be many--cf. the favelas. In the case Watts describes, the 50 or so artists working in a former Bhering (Behring?) confectionary factory in Rio are fighting not to be evicted from their studios and offices, which appears increasingly likely as the city gears up for the games and a larger £21 billion ($33 billion, €26 billion) development plan. The former factory, converted over the last three years into a creative hotspot by the artists, sits in Rio's port area, one of the oldest, more run-down and most affordable parts of the city, yet accessible to all of its fashionable neighborhoods and the Guanabara Bay, making it prime real estate for the Olympics-related development.

One thing the artists in this building, called Orestes 28 for its street address, have going for them is that in similar situations in other cities, such as Beijing, the site of the 2008 Olympic Games, artists in certain repurposed spaces were able to claim the mantle of being a cultural treasure and center, and were thus spared eviction and the effects of development and gentrification. The Orestes 28 artists hired a lawyer, made an appeal to Rio's government, and received a judicial revocation of the 30-day eviction order, but even with the Chinese precedent there's no guarantee they'll win out in the end, especially given Rio's lack of space, the development already underway, and the money developers and those politically connected to them stand to make both for the World Cup in 2014, and then two years later for the Olympics. As Watts notes, the artists have a front-row seat at the changes underway, which include not just a new name, "the Marvelous Port," but luxury hotels rising nearby and soon enough, new rail and roadways.  I actually know one of the writers Watt mentions, Rachel Gontijo (Araujo), a poet and publisher (A Bolha Editora), mentioned before on this blog, and for whose English translation of Hilda Hilst's The Obscene Madame D, translated by Nathanaël I have written the introduction. Rachel has been organizing a weekly happy hour at Orestes 28, which has included observing the transformation of the area, but as Watt says it's not clear how much longer this will occur.  I hold out hope, I really do, but...

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Economics and Occupy

Scrambling, between libraries, offices, cities (and states, that sit right across a river from each other) these days, so in lieu of a longer post (a few are coming), here's a link directly from Paul Krugman's "The Conscience of a Liberal Blog," on economics and the Occupy movement (let's not forget them!).

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Note to Readers + Olympic Withdrawal Syndrome

I want to begin by thanking all J's Theater's readers. I haven't done this in a while, and these are slow days, but the site stats state that people are dropping in, mostly from the US, Canada and the UK, but also from other parts of the globe (most recently and most frequently, Russia, France, Indonesia, Ukraine, and India, which amazes me), so I appreciate it. I also wanted to let readers know that because I've instituted Ghostery (which blocks Net trackers) in two of my primary browsers, I cannot seem to comment on posts. I had figured out a way around this by allowing Google Friends and Google Connect to pursue me without hindrance, but that no longer seems to work. If anyone has any suggestions, do let me know. I can read your comments, but I haven't been able to respond for months.


All around women's artistic gymnastics gold medalist Gabby Douglas
As is always the case every four years when the Summer Olympics roll around, I say I'm going to watch only a few events and not get sucked into the vortex of compulsive viewing, and then, when the two weeks of competition are over, I feel hung over, or perhaps more accurately, feel withdrawal symptoms. Until 2016, in Rio de Janeiro, there will be no more Olympic track and field races. There will be no more Olympic men's and women's artistic gymnastics. There will be no more Olympic men's and women's tennis, or road racing, or track cycling, or swimming, or rowing, or any of the other sports I love to watch.  There won't even be any more Olympic diving or women's beach volleyball--Hallelujah! But today I even miss the three-time US champions in that sport, although I really wish we saw a bit less of them and a bit more of some of the other sports, smaller though their viewership may be.

The world's fastest man ever, Jamaican Usain Bolt
Like many others across the Net I found myself complaining about NBC's TV and Net coverage, which was alternately excessively jingoistic, infuriating, infantilizing, sentimental, soporific, and as the awful video focusing on women's bodies exemplified, just plain sexist and misogynistic. It began with the annoying delayed broadcast of the opening ceremony, which I enjoyed (it felt very British; I mean, what positive things is the UK commonly known for? Its royalty, its long, continuous successful government, its monarchy, its extraordinary literary contributions, its amazing contributions to contemporary popular music, its mostly successful multicultural aftermath to its brutal colonial and imperial history) and mostly grew worse. There was the incessant focus only on American athletes and on those sports that the US teams and individual competitors were most likely to earn gold medals in. There were the human interest stories that were tiresome 20 years ago--we can look this stuff up online, NBC!, there's a thing called the Google, and another thing called the Wikipedia, and...--and still are. There were those extremely grating Mary Carrillo outings hither and thither, that simply ate up time that NBC could have devoted to, oh, sports! And then there was that interminable, maudlin Tom Brokaw paean to Britain's steadfast response to the German threat of invasion during World War II. (Why oh why do we ever have to see or even hear clips of you-know-who? Just. Stop. Giving. AH. Airtime. Stop. It!)

Gold medalists Mexico celebrate their victory over Brazil in the men's soccer final

Perhaps it all had to do with money. I took that to be the rationale behind the sports it showed in prime time and late at night (which was always better). The best aspect of NBC's offerings, however, turned out to be the streaming video. Yes, there were commercials every 15 seconds--or however long it was--but the quality, at least on my home cable modem connection--was quite good, and I could watch any sports in real time. I did this for a few, like men's and women's artistic gymnastics. Mostly I checked Yahoo! and the London Olympics 2012 website, which was so easily to read and follow, listed all the athletes, times and results, and should be the model for future games.
Félix Sánchez of the Dominican Republic, after winning 400 m hurdle gold
I won't recount the numerous highlights, since they've been amply covered, but I will list a few of my favorite moments. First, there was the incredible performance by the US women athletes; they accounted for the majority, I believe, of the US's 104 total medals, especially the golds. Congratulations to them, and of course to all the competitors at the games. Congratulations also to host UK, for pulling off a drama-and-terror-free extravaganza, from start to finish, and for also achieving its astonishing medal haul. Among the individual athletes, perhaps my favorite was 16-year-old Gabby Douglas, who became the first African American woman to win the gold in the women's artistic gymnastics all around, and the women's team also taking the gold. I still get a little choked up about the former achievement, and Douglas has been a delight to watch since. I hope she inspires many other young people to keep pushing even when, as was the case for her family, it was an incredible financial and logistical trial to keep going.

Louis Smith of Great Britain, on the pommel horse; the UK team took bronze

I also must give props to Michael Phelps, who, despite the hype, really showed what a champion is, by coming back and winning even more golds and other medals, in individual and relay races, and setting a standard that probably won't be equaled anytime soon. There was main man Usain Bolt, who despite the naysayers blew past his competition in record time in the 100 m and 200 m, and with his Jamaican teammates, set another record in the 4 x 100. I was as riveted by all the American women runners too: Allyson Felix, Carmelita Jeter, Sanya Richards Ross, and the rest, who won their races and relays, and let the world know that even if the male athletes weren't keeping pace, they were ready to set it. Double amputee Oscar Pistorius showed tremendous heart in his races, getting as far as the finals in the men's 400 m and 4x400m, while American Manteo Mitchell ran a leg of the 4x400m prelims with a broken leg, yet did not give up, helping the US men to advance to the next round.

The women's 4x100 record-setting relay team
I loved that some older athletes also did wonderfully at the games. There was Dominican American Félix Sánchez, now 35, winning the 400 m hurdles again for DR, reprising his 2004 gold in Athens, after having faltered badly in 2008 as his grandmother was dying. He broke down after winning and was so shaken with joy that he could not stop crying on the medal stand. Also, Kristin Armstrong, at age 39, returned and won a second gold in the women's cycling road individual time trial. There was Serena Williams, now 30 and a Grand Slam tennis winner (with five singles titles at the Australian Open, 1 single title at the French Open, five Wimbledon titles, and 3 US Opens) earning her first gold in women's singles, and then returning the next day to win the doubles gold with her sister, tennis champion Venus Williams, now 32.
Kirani James of Grenada celebrates his victory in the men's 400 m finals
Some newbies also took surprising golds. There was American Jordan Burroughs, from Camden, New Jersey, who defeated his Iranian challenger, Sadegh Saeed Goudarzi, to win a gold in the 74 kg freestyle competition. There was 19-year-old Kirani James, of tiny Grenada, winning the men's 400 meters, a race Americans have long dominated. In another surprising outcome, 19-year-old Trinidadian Keshorn Walcott received the gold medal in the men's javelin throw. A number of young American women took golds, silvers and bronzes in swimming, including 15-year-olds (!) Katy Ledecky (US) in the 800m freestyle, and Ruta Meilutye (Lithuania) in the 100m breaststroke, and 16-year-old Ye Shiwen (China) in the women's 200m and 400m individual medleys. A US coach, however, cast Ye's victories in doubt, publicly questioning whether she had been doping, which enraged many Chinese officials and fans. Several athletes were sent packing for doping, including one for having (accidentally, he claimed) ingesting a little weed. Uh huh. Though the gymnastics judging required some redos, bringing a silver to the Japanese men's team and pushing the British into bronze status, and a bronze as well to American Natalia Raisman in the floor exercises final, the shakiest sport this time through appeared to be boxing, where some of the officials calls looked more than subjective, and accusations have since flown about possible match fixing.
The finals in the women's keirin race, which Briton Victoria Pendleton won
I'll end by recounting a response to a friend and fellow sports lover who was questioning the relevance of one particular competition, equestrian dressage. Why, he asked me on the phone, was this elitist sport--one could easily throw sailing and a number of others, including diving into this category--still part of the Olympics? Only rich people had ever been interested in and could afford to do it, as he put it. Perhaps he was reacting to the brouhaha surrounding Rafalca, the horse owned by Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney's wife Ann. I don't know. But I pointed out to him that in fact dressage had a much older history; it was the purview of infantry officers as much as the aristocracy, going back centuries. I was reminded as we spoke of a question I always asked my Northwestern undergraduate introduction fiction writing students whenever we read the opening of Anton Chekhov's famous story "The Kiss": "What," I will often say to them, followed by some prompting, "is he describing." Almost none of them, except the few who ride horses regularly, knew. Here is the Chekhov quote (translator unknown):

At eight o'clock on the evening of the twentieth of May all the six batteries of the N---- Reserve Artillery Brigade halted for the night in the village of Myestetchki on their way to camp. When the general commotion was at its height, while some officers were busily occupied around the guns, while others, gathered together in the square near the church enclosure, were listening to the quartermasters, a man in civilian dress, riding a strange horse, came into sight round the church. The little dun-coloured horse with a good neck and a short tail came, moving not straight forward, but as it were sideways, with a sort of dance step, as though it were being lashed about the legs. When he reached the officers the man on the horse took off his hat and said:

     "His Excellency Lieutenant-General von Rabbek invites the gentlemen to drink tea with him this minute. . . ."

     The horse turned, danced, and retired sideways; the messenger raised his hat once more, and in an instant disappeared with his strange horse behind the church.

In this opening section, I let them know, Chekhov not only tells you what's going on, with concrete facts and details, but he shows you who you're dealing with. That horse "moving not straight forward, but as it were sideways, with a sort of dance step, as though it were being lashed about the legs," and which "turned, danced, and retired sideways," is an emissary of a military officer, an aristocrat, Lt.-General von Rabbe[c]k, and is performing dressage. Chekhov could have just used this term or its Russian equivalent, but instead, he describes, and thus shows, the gentility of the officer extending the invitation. This officer's home will be the site of the accident that transforms, at least momentarily, the story's protagonist, as all readers of "The Kiss" know.

Yonemitsu of Japan celebrates his victory against Kumar of India during the men's 66 kg freestyle wrestling final
Where am I going with this? There are sports, like track and field, wrestling and rowing, that probably date back to the oldest Olympics games.  Few of us ride horses regularly or can afford to, but in the long history of human existence, horses, like dogs, cats, cows, pigs, chickens, and a few other species, have been beside us every step of the way. What now seems very elitist once had specific meaning and importance, and we ought not forget this. Moreover, like Chekhov, in London, at least for two weeks, athletes from all over the world didn't just tell us what they could do, that they--we--could compete side by side without rancor or enmity--but they showed us, for the most part, the best of what human beings can do in competition and working together, whether competing on a BMX track or in a kayak on whitewater rapids or on a soccer field. It's four years till Rio, and it's going to be an impatient wait for me!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Ryan's Hope

Too many things going on for a real post, so instead, a very recent animation. (It's crude, but hey, I tried to complete it in less than an hour.) UPDATED: I slowed down the frame per second rate because C mentioned that it was too hard to read the scrawl, er, text, beneath the images. I also added a few splashes of color.) This was not sponsored by or coordinated in any fashion with Obama-Biden 2012. (As if.)

Ryan's Hope (or Some truths about the GOP VP nominee)

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Texas Executes Mentally Impaired, Cites Steinbeck Character + Russian Punk Protesters in Politlcal Show Trial

Marvin Lee Wilson
Yet another travesty of justice and a human tragedy, as well as a grotesque misuse of prose fiction, has just unfolded in Texas, where Marvin Lee Wilson, a 54-year-old man with a neuropsychologist-reported IQ of 61 was killed on Tuesday evening, by lethal injection, for the abduction and murder of Jerry Robert Williams, 21, a police department confidential informant, in 1992. Originally the court sentenced Wilson to death in 1994, but the death sentence was overturned in 1996 by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. The case went back to court in 1998, and Wilson was sentenced to death on a capital murder charge. The US Supreme Court ruled, in Atkins v. Virginia, that states cannot execute convicts deemed mentally impaired, but has left the standard for such a decision up to each state. Texas has yet to firmly establish such a standard. Morever, in Wilson's case, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had the opportunity to stay the execution, but chose not to, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals also chose not to consider any other evidence that might have halted Wilson's execution, and Texas's current governor, Rick Perry, refused to grant clemency (which is distinct from a pardon). Since the Supreme Court's reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, 1,301 people total and 500 in Texas have died as a result of state-sanctioned execution.

I mention "prose fiction" in Wilson's case, because according to the Beaumont Enterprise, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, in a 21-page 2004 ruling detailing what factors could be in considered in capital punishment cases and denoting what it considered mental impairment cited the fictional character Lennie Small, from the late 1962 Nobel literature laureate John Steinbeck's 1937 novella Of Mice and Men. The court stated that
Texas citizens might agree that Steinbeck's Lennie should, by virtue of his lack of reasoning ability and adaptive skills, be exempt. But, does a consensus of Texas citizens agree that all persons who might legitimately qualify for assistance under the social services definition of mental retardation be exempt from an otherwise constitutional penalty?
As it turns out, Steinbeck's son Thomas Steinbeck was unaware of this use of his father's work until he read about it in the Guardian UK newspaper online, and he and his wife have been outraged about it since. Both called for clemency for Wilson. As he notes, the court treats a fictional character as if he were real and arrogates to him the sympathy and mercy of "Texas citizens," yet failed to stop the execution of a real person--in this case Wilson--who is verifiably mentally impaired, under the standards of real-world neuroscience, which is to say, who was not to be accorded the same putative "exemption." Thomas Steinbeck's expounded on the matter

I am deeply troubled by today's scheduled execution of Marvin Wilson ... I had no idea that the great state of Texas would use a fictional character that my father created to make a point about human loyalty and dedication, ie., Lennie Small from 'Of Mice and Men,' as a benchmark to identify whether defendants with intellectual disability should live or die. My father was a highly gifted writer ... and the character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability.

As I said, Wilson died by lethal injection yesterday evening.  A number of people, including nine in Texas alone, are scheduled to undergo state execution in the United States through January 14, 2012. If you do not believe in the death penalty, please take the time to contact state authorities to appeal for clemency.


As a result of their March 2012 public protest, an anti-Putin, anti-Kremlin "punk prayer" in Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior, three members of the collective Pussy Riot, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 22, Maria Alyokhina, 24, and Yekaterina Samutsevich, 29, have been imprisoned in a Russian jail for the last five months, and are currently on trial, facing between 7 and 3 years of jail, on the charge of "hooliganism." The court decision is planned for August 17. A number of major musicians across the globe, including Madonna, as well as people all over the globe (you can do so here, via Amnesty International), have spoken out and called for these performers, known for their outspoken critiques of the Russian government under Vladimir Putin and their brightly-colored balaclavas, to be released and the blatantly political charges against them thrown out, but so far such calls have met with silence from the Russian authorities. Who are "Pussy Riot"? Here are a few videos, including one from this past spring in which Maria Alyokhina (Alekhina) describes the conditions in which they're being held.

Панк-молебен "Богородица, Путина прогони" Pussy Riot в Храме ("Punk prayer" "Hail Mary, Putin Put," Pussy Riot in the Church)
Alyokhina talks about detention conditions
Группа Pussy Riot жжет путинский гламур (Group Pussy Riot sets fire to Putin's glamor)
Pussy Riot на Красной площади песня Путин зассал (Pussy Riot at Red Square, singing "Putin zassal")

10 Most Difficult Books? + Coelho Slams Joyce

So often I'll Tweet things I hope to blog about, then I look up and an entire week has passed without the planned post. I do accomplish the required tasks, though, so I guess that's what's most important. But before another week zipped by I said I must write even a brief entry about this list, originally posted by Emily Colette Williams and Garth Risk Hallberg (I love that name) at The Millions, of what they find to be the top 10 most difficult books, which are mostly the most difficult novels, with two works of philosophy, and one long book of poetry. So first, the list, as reposted by Alison Flood at the Guardian's website:

Nightwood by Djuna Barnes;
A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift;
The Phenomenology of Spirit by G. F. Hegel;
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf;
Clarissa, or, The History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson;
Finnegans Wake by James Joyce;
Being and Time by Martin Heidegger;
The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser;
The Making of Americans by Gertrude Stein;
and Women and Men by Joseph McElroy.

They have set up a conversation on these books on Publishers Weekly's website. I am going to say that I agree with them about 7 of these books, of which I have begun 7, but have finished only three: 1) Nightwood; 2) To the Lighthouse; and 3) Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady. I read the first two for pleasure and curiosity, the third for a graduate class. I have started but never finished The Phenomenology of the Spirit, Finnegans Wake, Being and Time, The Fairie Queene, or The Making of Americans. I have never even begun A Tale of the Tub or Women and Men. Nightwood is written as if its author was high and striving to twist the entire book into a series of knots, but it isn't not too long, so if you stick with it, you can at least finish it even if you don't fully grasp it. To The Lighthouse isn't difficult at all, in my opinion, but it requires, like the first two sections of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, utmost concentration to grasp how the rhythms of the interleaving thoughts guide the narration. Clarissa is also not difficult in terms of its narrative, style or language, just monstrously long and tedious in parts, with horrific bits (I mean, Richardson really was trying to scare the daylights out of young female readers!), but if you can stick with it, you can grasp it.

Now, to the others: though I've long wanted to I simply have never had the time or patience to read Finnegans Wake, though I have read Ulysses (which has very tough bits but is quite enjoyable) and The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man several times, including in a race when I was in high school (don't ask). The Hegel and Heidegger texts are the most difficult of all their works, in my opinion. I didn't study philosophy, analytic or otherwise, so I didn't have to get through either, but I think that would have been the only way I could have. I also would venture that there are probably philosophical texts that are as if not more difficult. For example, some of the work of Baruch Spinoza, or Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason. From what I can tell, some of the analytic material is also pretty tough going, though it may be a lot easier to a more mathematically minded person. The Fairie Queene is just long and densely allusive, and since I have never had the time nor inclination to complete it, I didn't. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that no one, not even John Ashbery, who claims to have read it, has completed The Making of Americans. Not even Stein herself. Well, that's not true, because I know that at least a handful of scholars, Lord help them, have read it fully enough it to write about it. But it is written, I think, in such a manner as to frustrate forward reading.

There are other very difficult books, though. A few years ago, I taught Wilson Harris's Carnival in a graduate course, and several students mentioned that they were struggling to get through the text; it isn't too long, but verges on impenetrability. Harris manages, in a way few others do, to layer multiple narratives atop each other, much in keeping with the novel's thematics of time, in which Carnival spatiotemporality allows a fluid movement between past, present and future, and Carnival time, which might exist in all or none of these. The prose also brims with paradoxes, rhetorical curlicues and so forth, and seems straightforward until you try to read it that way. You can't. Two other very difficult books are Claude Simon's The Flanders Road and Triptych. Almost any of the major novels by this author, though, save The Visit, I have found very difficult to get through. Again, none is Clarissa-length, but all are almost riverrine in their handling of temporality. Simon's insight, following Faulkner, was to combine multiple temporal and narrative snippets together as in The Sound and the Fury's "Quentin" chapter, but extended over pages, with analeptic leaps, and radical shifts in voice. I actually did finish The Flanders Road and think Simon, who received the Nobel Prize in 1985, is a major author, but I will not be reading the book again if I can help it. Julián Ríos's novels Larva: A Midsummer Night's Babel and Poundemonium throw up multiple hurdles because of their Joycean inventiveness, but are ultimately navigeable, as is José Lezama Lima's lone novel, the masterpiece Paradíso, whose difficulty lies not only in its baroque syntactic style, but in the baroque complexity of its plotting. Persistence will get you through it, though.

More difficult authors: another Nobelist whose work is just like cutting through granite is Elfriede Jelinek. I am not going to lie; I simply could not bear, let alone get through, the book version of The Piano Teacher. (The movie version--whew!) I tried several other of her books and had a similar response.  I started to think that she was having a joke on readers, because the marmoreal quality of her prose retards progress. There supposedly is a strategy and a theory behind all of this. But I haven't figured it out, and after the several tries, I'm not going to try. Almost everything William Gaddis wrote is tough going. The Recognitions requires a test of will, and time. J R requires a forensic scientist's capacity to follow threads. A Frolic of His Own is, to me, the easiest of his big books, because of the humor. But none is easy to get through. In fact, a good deal of the experimental US fiction of the 1960s and 1970s is like spelunking without a compass, or rock-climbing with a rope. If you make it to the end, you really deserve a medal. But Gaddis is the most difficult, even compared to John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, William Gass, and the rest.

I am going to confess that I have never, ever been able to finish a Stanley Elkin novel, not even The Dick Gibson Show, The McGuffin and Mrs Ted Bliss, and he is hardly the most difficult author out there. I don't know why. I tried to read him repeatedly when I was younger because he was a St. Louis celebrity (of sorts) and won many major prizes. But I cannot for the life of me get into his prose. There could be a code in it for winning $1 million, but I'd have to forgo it. Well, maybe. Samuel Delany's long works are challenging, but I find all of them quite enjoyable to read, as he usually spices them up with action, vibrant descriptions, vivid scenes, sex, you name it. I feel this way about other authors of very long works of fiction--Leo Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, Robert Musil, Herman Melville (though his poetry is hard to get through!), Mikhail Bulgakov, Roberto Bolaño, João Guimarães Rosa in the original, etc.--who at least give the reader things to hang onto. I feel less this way about David Foster Wallace; over this past year I had to reread War and Peace (the newer translation being one I hadn't read before) and Infinite Jest to supervise a brilliant undergraduate (who is now writing comparative essays on both books), and while I tremendously enjoyed Tolstoy's endless but extraordinary novel, which in the newer translation includes long sections in French, which Tolstoy originally used alongside the Russian, I strongly disliked Wallace's book, the awful black dialect in it being just icing on a rotten cake. UGH! There is always a portion of my male students who adore him, though, and I find some of his stories, especially the earlier ones, fascinating. But I am not a fan by any means, and think he's overhyped.

I am surely leaving out other works people could cite (Juan Goytisolo, Diamela Eltit, B.H. Johnson, Alasdair Gray, Ricardo Piglia, Mark Danielewski, etc.). Many a person has complained to me about the difficult of Toni Morrison's work, though I've never had that experience with any of her books, and read Beloved from cover to cover without a break I was so enthralled. Jazz was a bit harder, but in general I don't think she's that tough. At a dinner I attended just before I left Chicago, two people told me that they thought Morrison's work was "horrible," mainly because they found Beloved unreadable. Again, I think it's a matter of taste; she's not exactly easy, but there are far more difficult writers and works out there. Henry James is another author that students at least have complained about, and a work like The Golden Bowl or The Ambassadors can be strenous to get through, just because of James's style, but again, there is usually enough of a plot, and enough interesting description and commentary, as well as the unrealing of thought, to make him bearable for me. The author I always find perhaps the most baffling in terms of citations of difficulty is William Shakespeare; there isn't a single play by him, or any of the sonnets, that anyone with a basic familiarity with English cannot read all the way through and gain the gist of. But many have been the people, including lawyers (!--they work with some of the most impenetrable language out there), who've told me Shakespeare is "too difficult" or "I just can't understand him at all." I usually cite Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, and they will revise their statements to say, "Most of his plays."

In terms of poetry, I'd say there are countless examples of very long works that I have started but not finished, both in terms of older texts and in terms of post-mid-century US poetry. I have read large portions of Ezra Pound's The Cantos, but have neither read all of them nor even grasped a large portion of the later ones. Some long works, like Derek Walcott's Omeros, James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover and John Ashbery's Flowchart, pose challenges, but are not exceedingly difficult, just as one could say of much older long works of poetry, like The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Canterbury Tales, Paradise Lost, The Ring and the Book, etc. The Stein cited above is in a category of its own, even for her work. Anything by the British poet David Jones is difficult, for sure. Again, I know I'm probably leaving out a great deal of work. I was trying to think of very difficult poems or plays, but most of the ones that come to mind are just long--cf. Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh--but hardly impossible to understand. I should mention Samuel Beckett, whose work is not especially easy to grasp, the novels being more difficult than the plays or the experimental prose, but often with him I find the humor, his use of repetition, and his larger themes make finishing the work not only possible but enjoyable. Watt, however, is a doozy.

If any J's Theater readers want to sound off on this topic, please do. I'm interested to hear your thoughts.


Paulo Coelho
As an addendum, I wanted to point to this commentary by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho, whose spiritual-lite novels have sold millions of copies, denouncing James Joyce's Ulysses as "pure style." Coelho's full statement, which initially appeared in the Folha de São Paulo, was: "One of the books that caused great harm was James Joyce's Ulysses, which is pure style. There is nothing there. Stripped down, Ulysses is a twit." He is not the first to criticize Joyce for this work or for his profound influence on contemporary literature, as Guardian critic Stuart Kelly notes in his follow-up. He follows the likes of Roddy Doyle, Dale Peck, Jonathan Franzen, and many more, but on top of his misreading he appears to utterly miss the specifics of the novel, which is nearly bursting with incident, details, language, everything--and has a plot to boot. There are novels that are pure style; I think of one I recently reread, Clarice Lispector's Água Viva, which has neither character nor plot, and is really all theme, voice and style, but Ulysses, for all its successes and faults, goes well beyond Joyce's style to achieve a portrait, singular in its richness and depth, of a single day in a single city, filtered through the consciousnesses of a trio (really, though there are more of course) of characters: Stephen Dedalus, and Leopold and Molly Bloom.

As Kelly points out, one should consider the source; Coelho may sell books as easily as McDonalds sells hamburgers (65 million copies of his novel The Alchemist are in print) and bind readers in his spell, but despite his self-aggrandizement as one who can "make the difficult seem easy," he does not come close to Joyce in terms of richness of style, his characterizations, his capacity to represent reality, or his deployment of language (Portuguese in his case).  Nor does he approach in his literary gifts the many authors from his own country (Lispector, Machado de Assis, Mário de Andrade, Guimarães Rosa, Jorge Amado, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Iván Ángelo, etc.) who have made major contributions to Brazilian, Lusophone, Latin American or global literature. He knows how to tell a good tale, or many variations on a few, certainly. Joyce could do that--read nearly any of the stories in Dubliners if you have any doubt--but also grasped the power of language itself at its most fundamental levels, as well as the multiple possibilities of storytelling. He is a literary mint. That counts for something--or a great deal, in financial terms. But James Joyce he isn't.