Thursday, July 20, 2017

On "Out of Depth" by Evelyn Waugh (1699 words) ***

"Out of Depth" is a science fiction story of sorts, one that plays with ideas related to black magic. The main character meets a magician, wishes nothing to do with him, but then somehow ends up being pulled into his orbit. Said magician hurtles him into a future five hundred years hence in which London society has been turned upside down. We get the sense that some kind of devastating war has taken place and society has been propelled backward centuries in technological innovation. Read the story online here.

On "Men at Arms" by Evelyn Waugh ***

The first novel Waugh's trilogy Sword of Honor, this one essentially provides an account of Guy Crouchback's training in the military at the start of World War II. In many ways, the timeline matches that in Waugh's own life. Too young to fight in World War I and too old to fight in World War II, Waugh/Crouchback joined a untraditional group of soldiers for officer training.

Crouchback is divorced without kids. He suffers from a kind of feeling of worthlessness of life. The military, fighting for a cause, will give him something to live for. Alas, it doesn't want him. It is only after a relative tells him of this special brigade that he is able to get in.

What follows are a series of humorous little stories about training. Particularly funny scenes involve one in which Crouchback is about to get back with his former wife but keeps getting interrupted by phone calls from his best army buddy. Another involves the friend's thunder box, which the brigadier takes a liking to and which Crouchback and his friend constantly try to hide.

Overall, one gets the sense that the military is a rather funny place. This is the Bill Bailey type military, one that succeeds, when it does, despite incompetence. There didn't seem to be much in the way of angst here, except a tiny bit toward the very end--and that mostly personal rather the military/war related. As such, the book didn't seem as tied in to most of the other post-1900 war literature I've read.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

On "Cruise: Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure" by Evelyn Waugh (2031 words) ***

"Cruise: Letters from a Young Lady of Leisure" is notable mostly for its voice, that of a young girl who falls in and out of love most ficklely, as people are wont to do on overseas cruises to Egypt. One gets the sense she is about twelve, at an age when understanding the viccisitudes of adult relationships is just beginning to don on her. Read the story here.

On "Scoop" by Evelyn Waugh ****

Another comic novel by the master, some say his best, this one focuses on skewering the profession of journalism. John Boot is a novelist who wants to escape a relationship with a gal by becoming a foreign correspondent and thus leaving the country. He calls up a connection of his, who promises to get him a position with a newspaper, which she then does.

Alas, the person in charge of hiring Boot mistakes the directive for a different Boot--William Boot--who writes a column for the paper on country living. And thus begins a novel of mistaken identity, a theme that is nearly dropped until the novel's end. William, thus, is presented with no choice but to go the Ishmaelia if he is to keep his job. Ishmaelia is an African country in the heat of civil war. And thus he packs--or buys the many things he is told that he'll need.

It's here, about a third into the novel, that the work loses steam for me. The jokes come furiously in the first third, somewhat less furiously thereafter, but more important, they become more and more easy jibes at the profession and at the characters involved. William Boot is something of a dolt who manages through incompetence and intransigence and even a little common sense (that other reporters seem to lack) to become a great foreign correspondent. Along the way he meets Katchen, a married woman whose husband has disappeared and with whom he falls in love. She promises to feed him news stories in exchange for various favors--mostly money. It becomes clear that she is primarily a gold digger (literally and metaphorically), but William, to all disadvantage, continues to support her in his grand love.

Waugh writes of one legendary journalist who tells great stories. This journalist, he notes, was sent to a country where nothing was going on and through the strength of his reports managed to get every nation to send troops to it to stop a civil war that until then had not even existed. For Waugh, news is in many ways not something that is reported but something that is created.

In this sense, this novel remains relevant in our day of "fake" news. What a media outlet chooses to report shapes what happens as much as it reflects what is really happening. Hence, one network's focus on the Trump campaign's Russian ties brings that prospect into a certain reality, while another network's almost complete ignoring of the story in favor of Clinton's botched e-mail server creates an alternate reality. Each in their own way shape and foster who holds power within the nation. Without reporting, Trump's indiscretions could never lead to whatever downfall might await us. The extent that those indiscretions are exaggerated or minimized--real or not--affects whether that downfall ever comes. If and when the downfall does come, it'll largely be at the hands of those reporting.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

On "Excursion in Reality" by Evelyn Waugh (4499 words) *****

One of the better tales Waugh tells is "Excursion in Reality"--or perhaps I'm just a sucker for Hollywood stories. In this one, a novelist is recruited to rewrite Hamlet for the motion pictures--but to update it in terms of language. In the process, of course, with studio committees what they are, the play loses much of its actual being. Meanwhile, the novelist's fickle relationship with his girlfriend is put on hold, as he becomes wrapped up in a completely other affair. Methinks Waugh uses the term reality ironically. Read the story here.

On "Brideshead Revisited" by Evelyn Waugh *****

I've come late to this classic novel, in part because the work always seemed like it would be something boring to me: the title, the idea that this is about some kind of life among upper-class Brits. And it is the latter, as most of Waugh's is, but it is magnificent.

What do I like about this book? It has a very strong voice, one that beguiles, that ropes one in, as if it were a true-to-life memoir. And secondly, it takes religion seriously--and respectfully--which is not something one sees in a lot of post-1900 fiction.

The story is about one Charles Ryder, an officer in the army who comes upon the Brideshead estate in his work. This is the frame through which the story of the estate--of his relationship with it--is told.

Most of that relationship is with Sebastian, the younger brother of the four children to whom the estate might one day fall. Sebastian and Charles meet at Oxford, where they do as many college students do: they drink and they party. This is the bulk of the first half of this book. It is a story of friendship. And it feels as if it is going nowhere, and yet, as I noted, it beguiles. I was reminded of On the Road, another book about a friendship that has only a loose plot that somehow manages to keep readers hooked. We're not driven to find out "what happens." We just enjoy learning about these young men, sharing in their fun times and enthusiasm for life. And most of all learning about the fun, strange character Sebastian, who carries a teddy bear with him as a friend.

While one can clearly read the story as one of male friendship, there is a subtext of homosexuality going on as well. Some of the friends of the pair are clearly of that persuasion, and at various times we are provided strange asides: the two too naked in a bedroom to come out to see their sister, the two being denoted as not interested in women by other relatives. But Waugh keeps that in the background; his focus is on friendship. This might be a reflection of the time in which Waugh wrote or it might be more that friendship is Waugh's concern here. Or both.

Alas, a plot does kick in. The drunken escapades become more regular, and from here the novel loses some energy as it becomes more and more concerned with Sebastian's alcoholism. Attempts are made to keep him from drinking, and one sees the strain that is put onto a friendship in which one is confronted with wanting to help one's friend in two different ways: giving the friend the freedom he wants but also keeping the friend from destroying himself.

Eventually, Sebastian wanders off into Europe and Africa and drifts apart from Charles, who has become a kind of member of the family. Eventually, Charles is sent to find Sebastian to tell him of his mother's impending death, but such ends up being the climax and end to the friendship. Years later, having moved into a career as a painter and married, Charles meets again Sebastian's sister Julia. The two have an affair, and one has to think that it is in part an unspoken love for Sebastian and for times past that draws them together.

Charles is the lone cynic among the family of Catholic believers. His agnosticism is the point of view from which the novel is written, and thus much of the book is about Charles attempting to understand the family's devotion to Catholicism. It is in this sense that the book takes religion seriously, for rather than dismiss religion, in the end, Charles comes to have an understanding of its meaning.

Waugh, himself a Catholic, thus wrote a Catholic novel. If we take this as being his view of the church, one would see within it a way to stave off or deal with the issues of modernity and death, a way to put order to the world. It's more a feeling than a logic or way of life, insofar as its enacted in the novel, though I'm sure Waugh would see that to be very much logical in itself.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

On "Too Much Tolerance" by Evelyn Waugh (1543 words) ***

Just as "Love in the Slump" seems in part a commentary on Waugh's first marriage, so too on some level does this one, "Too Much Tolerance," which is about a very happy man who lets himself be taken advantage of by his business partner, son, and (ex-)wife. But all is good in his book. Something was odd about this piece to me insofar as I didn't really feel bad for the man--perhaps because even though he had much to complain about, he was so happy despite it all. Maybe there's something to being a Penelope. Read the story here.

On "A Handful of Dust" by Evelyn Waugh ***

Were it not for the masterfully cold ending--one that is an almost verbatim casting of Waugh's great story "The Man Who Liked Dickens"--this novel likely would have been almost entirely forgettable. This is not Waugh the humorist at work here; this is Waugh the bitter divorcee. There is plenty of commentary about English high society, and the story itself is compelling enough to keep one reading, but the book consists in large chunks of dialogue and much of it not very good. Characters speak for paragraphs, expositorily telling the story: "I am going to do X, and then because I feel this way, I will do Y. Do you think that will please my spouse or will it make for hurt? I do so hope for hurt." "I believe that your husband will find your actions to be difficult to adjust to. He has always been . . ." And several of the central characters in the story have little to recommend themselves as people.

The book is forged mostly around the Lasts--Tony and Brenda--who maintain an estate called Hetton and throw regular parties. A man named Beaver comes to visit Tony, a man whom Tony barely knows. Brenda takes a kind of liking to him. He is young and difficult to make love her, and that is precisely why she likes him.

Bored by life in the country and wanting to take up with Beaver, Brenda arranges to rent a flat in London that the family can barely afford. She tells Tony it is so that she can study economics. More and more time is spent away from him--and more and more time with Beaver. Tony never seems to catch on, even as Brenda and Beaver become the talk of high society.

Brenda attempts to set Tony up with another woman. The efforts fails masterfully.

Meanwhile, their son John (whose age is hard to fathom since he too speaks in complete paragraphs) is left without a mom. Reared by nannies and butlers, he has a great liking for horse riding. And it is a tragedy involving him that brings the whole affair to light.

So little sympathy can be thrown Brenda's way by the time that divorce is in the offing, Waugh's description of her next acts make her utterly detestable. She's conned her husband of money for months, ignored her child, and taken up with another man. And now Tony agrees to go through with setting up a divorce for her by faking his own affair. The attempt does not go well, but rather than be happy with the alimony Tony is offering, Brenda opts to sue him for an amount that will force Tony to put the family estate on the auction block, this so that she can be supported in the manner in which she is used to and so that her lover, Beaver, can be supported as well (since he has no means of support for himself). It is this that pushes Tony to run away to the jungles of Brazil, where the story's final tragic ending comes into being.

What readers get then is a sense of the utter desolation that divorce works on a man, one that is put into metaphor by Tony's experiences in the jungle. But because the text seems so one sided, the characters fail ultimately to feel fully forged.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

On "Love in the Slump" by Evelyn Waugh (3291 words) ****

"Love in the Slump" focuses on a marriage between two friends--a couple who decide to try out marriage because they are getting toward the end of their marrying years and haven't found anyone. Alas, one gets the feeling that as companionable as they are, they still act and feel single, which does not bode well for the future. Read the story here.

On "Decline and Fall" by Evelyn Waugh ****

Waugh's first novel showcases the same dry humor that is apparently present in most of his fiction. Throughout, great one liners are popped off randomly. Meanwhile, the story itself is, while funny, somewhat dark. However, Waugh is definitely English. There's a kind of obsession with class and with title that doesn't quite exist in the same way in American fiction.

The story revolves around one Paul Pennyfeather. Waugh denotes it himself toward the end of the book: Pennyfeather is a static character. Things happen to him, rather than he doing things to others. And that's right where the book starts. Paul is studying to become a minister when he is mistaken for a person from another college, a person whom revelers see fit to attack by stripping him and forcing him to dance naked in public. This results in Paul losing his place at the divinity school and sets into process the rest of the novel's events.

Where Paul ends up first is at a school for young boys. Waugh, in this first part of the book, pokes easy fun at academia and teaching. Paul has no credentials, but he seems utterly perfect to the man doing the hiring. The main job, it seems, of the teacher is mostly to babysit the students. At the school, Paul meets several other men, including Grimes, a former military man; and a man who tells tall tales about himself. The latter ends up being a crook of sorts and is arrested. The former marries but is already married, and so gets caught for bigamy, fakes his death, and escapes.

Paul opts to marry into a noble family, the mother of one of his students. Unbeknownst to him, the woman is a purveyor of prostitution, procuring young English girls for use overseas. Paul, believing he is helping the girls attain noble standards, agrees to help out with the family business, but on the eve of his wedding, he is arrested. His job finally becomes plain to him.

Now in prison, he meets up with all the people he used to teach with. Like Grimes, who begins anew by faking his death at each ill turn, Paul is given such an option as well.

Do we feel for Paul? He is a rather pitiful character, and I found myself not that concerned about him until, in prison, his fiancee, who is the cause of his imprisonment, announces she is marrying someone else. The odd thing is that by this time, Paul doesn't care: he hurts because he doesn't hurt, as Waugh writes. That's the sad part, that he seems so lost to any good in life.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

On “Dalyrymple” by J. C. Hallman (2005 words) ****

"Dalyrimple" is an odd tale of a man who offers sleep sessions for a fee. Pay a price for a half hour, hour, day, or ??? What are the ramifications if someone decides to sleep forever? Who is responsible and is this more-or-less death or something else? These are some of the questions the story poses. Read the story here.

On "Brief Lives: Evelyn Waugh" by Michael Barber ***

Part of a series that a friend of mine read volumes from a decade or so ago, this book gives a tad more information about Waugh's life than one would read in an encyclopedia but a good deal less than one would read in a fuller biographical expose. As such, it's a bit workmanlike, spilling out facts but not bringing Waugh quite to life the way a longer biography likely could and would. But it's a great for someone like me, who didn't really want to read a really long life study.

In Barber's hands, Waugh comes across as something of a bore to me. He had a caustic wit and seemed to treat people generally rudely, though the wit kept him semipopular. He was also obsessed with British tradition and class. These sort of things suggest to me that I would not have much cared for the man.

Waugh's life began rather rough, not in the sense that he grew up underprivileged but rather he grew up the less-liked son of a family. Alec, his brother (a novelist I've also read but did not realize was actually related), was papa's favorite. Thus, Evelyn and his father did not get along very well. Arguably this helped to create Evelyn's personality. One thing his father did do, however, was introduce him to literary culture, for his father was a literary biographer, and often he read aloud Dickens and other nineteenth-century British authors.

Evelyn graduated to the university, where he studied literature and generally drank too much. He took up with other men, since it was an all-male school. But afterward, almost on a seeming whim, he would marry a woman named Evelyn. She-Evelyn was looking to escape her family and was not really in love with Evelyn. This would prove fateful, as a year later, she would run off with someone else. Still, the marriage granted Evelyn access to the noble class, which is something he seemed to want.

Evelyn, the writer, would turn to Catholicism to address issues with regard to the modernizing of society. Like T. S. Eliot, Evelyn seemed to find in long Western tradition the means to address changes brought about by modernism. As such, he seems like a man out of his time. Indeed, his writing, well often greatly satiric, is fairly traditional; early Evelyn experimented a bit, but he came to think that traditional techniques were all that were needed.

Catholicism wouldn't really affect his sexual behavior, however. He would continue pursue and bed women, including married ones. And he would continue to drink.

And he would marry again too, to another aristocrat. He would travel a lot, in part to write about it. He would mingle with the British literary crowd, Anthony Powell, Graham Greene, and others. He would live in an old estate that he'd purchase expressly for the sake that it would look as if it had been around (in the family) for generations.

While he would enjoy quite a bit of success before World War II, his reputation would begin to take a hit later. World War II itself would prove, personally, useful to him in terms of giving him experiences to write about. He set about to become part of it. He would not, however, rise far as an officer, and the three major campaigns he was a part of would each prove not to be very successful. Waugh wasn't really cut out, personality wise, for the military anyway.

Nor does it seem that he was cut out well to be a father. He tended to spend as little time as possible with his children (though that was likely also the British way at the time--he being of a generation not far from my own father, who often denotes how parents at that time did not dote on their kids). The kids themselves, generally, appreciated his humor and were not, according to the biographer, resentful.

The war would provide fodder for his trilogy, in the midst of which he would have a breakdown, which would become material for another book. He would sue and be sued for things he'd say about others and they about him. He'd grow old. And the world would change, and he'd continue on in his conservative aristocratic leanings and seem to be of another time and era.

After his death, the posthumous publication of his diaries and letters and the television production of his novel Brideshead Revisited (a rather atypical book for him) would restore his reputation and bring him back to the literary conversation.

Friday, April 28, 2017

On "Princess of Pop" by Vanessa Blakeslee (3542 words) ***

This is essentially the tale of Brittany Spears retold in lyrical prose. Read the story here.

On "The Loved One" by Evelyn Waugh *****

I last read this book toward the end of my senior year of high school. I remember loving it and wishing I'd picked Waugh for my senior paper instead of Thomas Hardy (who I'd chosen as the least of the uninteresting British writers much earlier in the year). Yet strangely, I never went back and read more of Evelyn Waugh.

And now, here is it nearly thirty years later, and I'm finally picking him up again, with the intention of reading much more of this humorous British novelist.

The book, which I remembered was being about a love affair between morticians, one of whom was a plagiarizing poet, was enjoyable again, as it was those decades ago. I can see why I liked it so much in my late teen years: it was funny, and it was dark. The latter probably would have made me like it even more in my early twenties. For it has, under its core, some of the same themes that pop up in many other modernist works. I was reminded quite a bit of the two most famous novels of Nathaniel West, both because of its setting and because of its use of advice column letters.

Also of note--things I didn't remember: The book is about Hollywood, most specifically British writers in Hollywood. There's a good amount of skewering of the movie industry in addition to that of the funerary industry. And the morticians--well, one of them works at a pet cemetery. I laughed out loud at some parts.

I could say something here about how the interest in death is also about the death of the soul, how the main character's interest in becoming a minister merely to make money represents the loss of religion, how he returns to art to replace religion, after losing his artistic abilities to the materialist interests bound within capitalism, which even tries to sell you on burial spots for your pets. Or I could focus on the title and try to ferret out what it is Waugh is saying about our "loved ones." But those sort of philosophical ideas, while perhaps interesting, to me now seem perhaps a bit put on and also lead me to the one fault I have with the novel in these my older years: it doesn't have much heart. It is a vicious book. Funny, but in the end, these characters are cardboard and/or dreadful, and while I enjoyed the book, I didn't find myself caring much about the people themselves. This isn't to say that all books must accomplish this; I like scathingly funny works, dark works, works with characters no one can love too--but I probably prefer most those books that in the end make me feel, and care.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

On “Dendromancy” by Zach Falcon (904 words) ****

"Dendromancy" is about a young man in love with a witch, a real one, into black magic, not "white witchcraft." The story seems innocuous enough, and then it takes a very unsavory turn that shocks, except it's told in such a humdrum manner that one gets the feeling that the narrator does not feel deeply about much, except maybe the beauty of the world. Read the story here at Hawk and Handsaw.

On "The Monopolists" by Mary Pilon *****

I'd had this on my list to read, and then I was listening to the podcast 99% Invisible, and the author was interviewed for the show, and I figured the whole story was just about given away. After all, she went into pretty good detail regarding the origin and histories of the game of Monopoly, something I knew just a bit about.

As it turns out, however, the podcast merely skimmed the surface. Another good chunk of this book is about a court case--and about trademark (in addition to copyright and patents) and what it means for inventors and businesses. As such, this book becomes much more than a history. It becomes a kind of polemic, one that will invest you emotionally and will make you a bit angry. You'll cheer the little guy here, which is to say that on one level, this book focuses more on the disadvantages of trademark than the advantages, on the way trademark stifles innovation and small business. My wife, by contrast, pointed out to me that trademark actually protects the little people, and she has a point. There are usually two ways to look at things. No one would want to go into a store and buy a Gucci handbag and then have it fall apart two weeks later (because it wasn't really Gucci); in this sense, trademark protects the consumer. We know when we buy a brand or product that we are actually getting what we have purchased, and if someone tries to get around that trademark, that person will be punished, eventually, so that counterfeiting is discouraged.

But I like a book to rile me up, and this one did. The history part becomes part of the recounting of the lawsuit. The game essentially arose like this: a certain woman named Lizzie Magie created a board game to promote the economic theories of Henry George. That theory essentially promoted a single tax system--a property tax. That way, in theory, excessive landowning would be discouraged, and landlords would not be able to charge exorbitant rents for lousy properties. It was a game intended to show the evils of capitalism; it was called The Landlords Game. One could play it in two ways, one with a single tax system wherein players ended up working harmoniously or one in a monopolistic way wherein people tried to take advantage of each other. The latter, of course, is what won out.

Her game won little notoriety, but people did play it--and copy it--and change it. Games such as Finance and Inflation all played with similar ideas and concepts. A game very much like Monopoly found form among Quakers in Pennsylvania. Enter Charles Darrow. He plays the game at someone's house one night, then asks that person to write up the rules for him. He hires a professional designer to draw up some pictures and make the components pretty. He then begins selling the work as his own, until finally he sells it to Parker Brothers for big dollars, plus residuals. He claims the game as his own creation. Parker Brothers buys up as many patents of similar games as it can in order to better stake a claim to the rights to Monopoly. Magie gets a whopping five hundred dollars.

Parker Brothers does this because it had been burned in the past. Tiddly Winks and Ping-Pong (formally called Table Tennis) being two games that they invested in and marketed heavily only to see those games be considered public domain. So it has good reason to hold its rights to Monopoly closely.

That's the history part. The court case part considers one Robert Anspach, who creates a game for similar reasons as Magie created hers: to show the evils of capitalism--or rather the evils of monopoly. He calls his game Bust the Trust, but no one knows what a trust is, so he changes the name to Anti-Monopoly and sales begin to take off. Enter Parker Brothers, who claim that Anspach has ripped off their trademark. The rest of the story follows the next ten years of Anspach's life as he goes through hell to defend his right to sell and market his creation. There are surprises along the way, so I won't go deeper into the story than that. Suffice it to say that there's a lot of irony in the story: a game about fighting monopolies that becomes, in a sense, the subject of an intense fight over a monopoly. And in the end, the result is the monopolists and trademark advocates get stronger measures in Congress to defend themselves, lest other people like Anspach come along and create problems for big business. This is the part that really makes one feel angry--how much money really seems to matter in terms of the creation of our laws.

Monday, April 17, 2017

On "The Lung" by Vanessa Blakeslee (2638 words) ***

What is love? Is it trying to force someone to do something they don't want to do for their own good? Or is it sticking by that person, even when they do bad? That's the question Blakeslee poses in this short tale. Read the story here at Split Lip Magazine.

On "Neither Snow nor Rain" by Devin Leonard ****

This history of the U.S. Postal Service is entertaining and easy to read, through perhaps not the most thought provoking. There isn't a strong thesis, as one would see from most more scholarly works. Here, the point is simply to tell us how the postal system has changed over the years and give us some fine anecdotes along the way.

Leonard starts off with a preface that recounts the trips of various postal afficionados, guys with blogs who go traveling to all the various post offices around the United States. But they have to move quick, because those post offices are closing. Many were great architectural works.

And then, we're off, back in the days of colonial America, where the British post master in the colonies generally made money off commission (or really, a salary that only kicked in once one made a profit to pay it). But there were various advantages in terms of connections for one's business; for example, if you owned a printshop and printed newspapers, you could ship your newspaper using the service, and as postmaster, it cost you nill. Benjamin Franklin recognized this advantage and sought the commission for the service, eventually winning it. (Before that, he had bribed postal employees to take his newspaper, since not having the commission, he couldn't get the postal service to carry it.) He then used the commission to send his newspapers accordingly, but he also sent other's papers for a small fee. And he expanded where the service went and how fast it worked, making postal service profitable and then even more so. He and his partner made their salary and became quite well off--enough that Franklin left off actually monitoring the work himself and left it mostly to family members, while he lived in Britain (and then later, after the Revolution, in France).

Even so, sending materials via the post cost a good amount of money. Newspapers generally had a special pricing deal, but for the individual consumer, the cost was such that only the rich generally used the post or the well-connected (politicians generally could send things for free). This inspired various private companies to form, who would send mail for people--companies like Wells Fargo. The U.S. Postal Service stayed out of shipping parcels, which also gave such companies an opportunity. But the private companies could take the best routes, and thus kill off profitability for the postal service. Eventually, Congress passed a law that only the postal service could carry letters. But there were loopholes. For example, it didn't cover letters sent via boat or railroad, and so private companies continued to exploit such loopholes until they were closed. They also were the main bringers of mail to far-flung places like California. Companies like the Pony Express (which only operated for about eighteen months) managed to get mail to the far West much faster overland than the government could do so going around and overland through Panama using a company of ships.

The Postal Service in its early days usually worked by having mail delivered to post offices. People would come to the post office to collect their mail. And that's when one usually paid for the mail--it was collect. There were no stamps. Some took advantage of this by placing short notices on the outside of the letter (envelopes often were not used, because of the extra expense, since charges were by number of pages), much like in the days of pay phones, one might call someone for a ride but that person would not accept the collect call, knowing that the call itself was the signal to come pick the person up. But eventually, stamps were introduced, allowing people to pay for mail in advance. Pricing was made more competitive so that the common person could use the service. And rural routes were introduced, along with home delivery, resulting in fewer post offices. The postal service also began accepting packages, and in the early days, some folks even sent children (up to a certain size limit) through the mail (put the necessary postage on them, and off they go).

But change generally came slowly, and often slower than the postmaster general wished. Congress was often slow to take up new ideas that were being used overseas. The introduction of rural routes, for example, proved to be expensive (and caused losses), as some in the government had feared (because population density was not what it is in Britain, where such experiments were first used). Mail sorting on the railroad was also another innovation, and it sped service quite a bit.

A certain man named Comstock carried out a campaign against sending lewd materials through the postal service, and his work helped to keep various books out of general circulation until the 1930s or so.

Airmail had many fits and starts. In the early day, it was often done by the military, to give pilots something to do in non-warring times. But the military pilots often would not fly in inclement weather, and the postal service wanted to better guarantee service, so when allowed, it hired its own pilots. In some cases, it could speed up delivery by halving the time to send letters, but often weather and crashes interfered, and the service was often cancelled by Congress and then brought back and then cancelled and then put under the military again and so on. Eventually, however, it was farmed out to private carriers at the lowest bid; the proliferation of carriers, however, meant few made much in the way of profit, so one postmaster finally got Congress to lift the bidding requirement--instead, the postmaster chose four carriers to do all the work: the companies that became TWA, United, American, and Eastern airlines. This helped bring in passenger airlines as well. (As short return to military delivery in the 1930s proved a disaster, and the service entered private carrier usage again shortly thereafter.)

Stamp collecting came to be of a certain vogue under FDR, who was himself an avid collector. The post office began to issue commemorative stamps and other items for aficianados, and that generated a lot of profit for the postal service. I got the feeling that this was likely the golden age of the post office (when the postmaster even ran against FDR for the Democratic nomination in 1941). After FDR, the office began its descent. Continuing in the red, its buildings aging, its service reduced from twice a day to once a day (because of the decline in the railroad and the proliferation of phone service, even as the number of packages delivered rose), its techniques increasingly outdated (hand sorting, just as had been done in the time of Ben Franklin), the post office would not again have so much positive attention lauded on it.

That decline would reach a crisis point in the 1960s under postmaster O'Brien. So much junk mail would clog the system that there would be a backlog of mail that had become impossible to catch up on and offices too small to hold the backlog; Xmas packages would be delivered in February. The year 1963 saw the introduction of the zip code (first number for region, second for state, and the last three for post office sorting, the last one being the very closest post office). Optical recognition scanners could feed the numbers to computer if the numbers were typed (and 80 percent were, because that was the volume of business mail). The problem: the post office had only one scanner, in Detroit. Unable to raise rates or update technology because of Congressional unwillingness to spend money or raise more, O'Brien suggested turning the post office into a semiautonomous corporation, with a governing board; otherwise, Congress's micromanagement would make it continue to have billion-dollar deficits. AT&T's former CEO (AT&T was profiting about $2 billion per year with twice the volume of message) was brought in for consultation.

While that CEO would have preferred to have privatized the post office, what he ended up recommending was that the service become a federal corporation: it would have its own board, set its own rules, take in the money it needed to pay its own way, but remain part of the government. The plan would not go anywhere until Nixon's presidency, in part because of the opposition of postal worker unions. And just as the plan implementation was about to come into being, postal workers went on strike. They wanted higher wages--and in cities like New York, arguably needed them badly and aggressively. The head of one of the major unions had agreed to the postal organization plan in exchange for a 6 percent raise for workers, but that was not enough for a New York union. Other postal unions in other cities stood with those workers, and mail ground to a halt. This was the 1970s, so mail really was relied on, as it was when I was younger. Without it, paychecks could not be distributed, bills did not go out, payments to bills did not get made. Losses proliferated in the business community. It was sort of hard for me to imagine, to go back to those times, because in the past two decades so much has become electronic--bills and payments and paychecks all can and often are done electronically now. There are options to the mail; not so then.

The strike led to further concessions. Instead of a 6 percent raise, the postal service got a 14 percent raise--6 percent immediately and 8 percent upon implementation of the plan the unions were not keen on.

Meanwhile, private carriers such as FedEx, UPS, and DHL began to offer services. The founding of DHL was rather humorous. The letters stand for the initials of the three founders. They essentially started off by simply offering to deliver time-sensitive materials for people and companies. They literally went to an office, picked up the package, drove to the airport, got on a plane, and then went to where they were supposed to. That would be expensive, so truly these were time-sensitive items. But that became a business. FedEx, a story I'd heard before, began as a college paper that earned a D; the founder had an idea that he, after graduation, put into practice--again to deliver time-sensitive materials. After operating in the red for a few years, it turned a profit in 1978 or so and never looked back. The USPS wasn't happy about the competition and threatened lawsuits and other action, since it has a legal monopoly on carrying letters, but business lobbyists in Congress got USPS to stand down, since ExpressMail never has been quite as dependable as FedEx and some other carriers are.

Meanwhile, with the implementation of the postal corporation, the USPS finally started to turn a profit. Mechanicalization led to needed efficiencies. Bulk and junk mail began to take up more and more of its work. But working conditions were such that some began to feel frustrated and "go postal." Leonard traces two major reasons for this: One was that the postal service tended to hire a lot of army vets, and while they worked with vets with physical disabilities, they did not pay much attention to mental and emotional disabilities coming out of war. Another was that the culture of the postal service was such that once people worked up from regular employees to managers, previous treatment caused them to feel it was their turn to dish out meanness. But a third reason, heavily implied, was that the postal service was also seeing cutbacks--in employees and managers. No matter, the first issue was dealt with, and employees were also provided with a hotline to call to report threats, and after a decade of bad publicity with regard to employees shooting up one another, the problem dissipated.

Alas, the time of surpluses was a short one. The postal service attempted to adapt to the times. It created services such as one where people could send electronic messages to the post office, then have the post office print it out and send it as a hard copy. But these early attempts to deal with the coming electronic age were largely opposed by various lobbyists, who did not want the postal service interfering--or trying to claim a monopoly--in e-correspondence. And then, e-mail really did take off, and first-class mail began to nosedive, especially as bills and bill paying became increasingly fully electronic. The post office saw its mail drop to levels from two decades earlier. Other efforts to update or save money failed also. The post office wanted to cut Saturday service--Congress prevented it (because of the postal workers lobby), even though 70 percent of Americans thought the plan a smart one. Certain rural delivery was to be scratched, but that too was interfered with, though many post offices have been closed. That said, not as many post offices have been closed as would likely have made for more efficiencies. There was a plan, for example, to place postal service kiosks in Sears stores (replacing full-fledged office), but again, lobbyists prevented it from happening.

While the post office bleeds red, its one saving grace during the Internet revolution has been package delivery. Amazon relies on USPS more than on UPS or FedEx. But that is a dubious deal, as Leonard denotes, since Amazon could at any moment pull its support--especially once it forges more efficient means to deliver goods (most likely via its own package delivery service). Such is a quandary I know well. Publishers too find Amazon to be a dubious ally. It sells more books than most other outlets--pays its bills, doesn't return much, makes virtually any book available for purchase to end users--but by controlling so much of the market, it can also more easily dictate terms.

In this sense, the book ends on a sad note. One finds that the postal service has been a great boon to the nation but that in some ways it is aging badly. Attempts to modernize are being interfered with by the government itself. This is where those who argue that private firms do better work win. The postal service could do more to get into the black, but the government and the lobbyists who influence lawmakers won't allow it to do so and then complain when the postal service bleeds red. At the same time, there are reasons the postal service is better as a government entity--most especially because it is the only way some rural clientele are served. The market simply wouldn't provide for such customers. One wishes there were ways to strike a better balance.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

On "Identity" by Felipe Alfau (4636 words) *****

In Alfau's introductory story to Locos, we start with a character--or person--who is slated to be important. That is his role in life. But no matter what he does, he is ignored. The premise seemed so much like the lives of many I know, including myself. We want our lives to amount to something, but in the end, all our artistic endeavors or service endeavors or whatever we do seem to go nowhere far. We trudge on in anonymity, questioning our existence. That is Fulano, who volunteers to be part of the Alfau's novel in an effort to gain some importance. It is suggested the Fulano commit suicide to start the novel, so he sets about that course of action. He won't really do it, but he'll leave a note and disappear mysteriously, making him the center of action--except that when he does do it, he is the victim of a thief, who seeing Fulano drop his possessions and his suicide note in the streets, absconds with the items and makes the suicide note his own, leaving his own possessions with the note in its stead. The story becomes then a vehicle to right this wrong. Read the story here at Barcelona Review.

On "Locos" by Felipe Alfau ****

I'm not sure how I came to this book, but it showed up in some kind of recommended reading list at some point (on metafiction, perhaps), and I took note of it. And now, here I am, a few years later, reading it. And much of it was great!

Alfau plays with the novel form, as writers of the modernist era often did. I am not sure he wholly succeeds, as the work seems more like a collection of linked stories than a novel. Some read Dubliners as a novel, for instance, but I still think of it as a collection; that said, this piece might be more like Winesburg, Ohio, which while also not fully a novel to me is not also fully a collection of stories that stand on their own. Alfau's stories can be read on their own, but the links are useful to understanding the whole. While the stories can be read in any order, the first half of the book focuses a lot on the process of creating a novel.

We start the book with a character--or person--who is slated to be important. That is his role in life. But no matter what he does, he is ignored, as he is in the story. Instead, we go to a cafe where the rest of the book's characters are introduced to us in various forms.

The next chapter focuses on a character who decides to take over in the absence of the author, who had gone off to enjoy some time with friends, intending to take up with the character later. Alas, the character gets into so much trouble on his own that extricating him proves challenging for the author upon his return. What follows is a confusing muddle. The character meets a person from real life. The person from real life then becomes a character. The character proves to have been another character, who had earlier run off with a different woman. And on and on.

In the process of that story, we are introduced to the character of a beggar, which is the topic of the next story/chapter. In it, a professional beggar manages to find a job. But the job does not begin for a month, so the beggar has plans to continue in the begging profession for a while longer, but he accidentally gives away his last coin to another beggar. Said other beggar is an expert, who lives the life of a rich man when not on the twelve-hour begging shift. The one beggar goes to the other to beg his last coin back, and what ensues is a shift in the nature of begging and professionality. This piece proves much less playful in terms of form than the previous chapters--save for some short comments from the author about how he had ruined the character's plans for himself--which is a good thing insofar as the constant interceding of author and character into each other's narratives can wear thin when overused.

The focus on shifting positions in "The Beggar" plays out again and again. In the next chapter, an expert on "Fingerprints" has his technological expertise and certainty turned against him. Fingerprints don't lie, he asserts, and if his father's memory is to be preserved, he must go through with his actions. Likewise, in the chapter after that, "The Wallet," victims become bandits become heroes. The story is set in Madrid at a time when crime is rappant. Lights go out at night, and everyone takes to committing crimes in the streets. The prefect makes a bet that as soon as a young man leaves his side, he will be mugged. Said mugging in fact occurs--or rather, pickpocketing--but the young man is fast and attacks the would-be thief and recovers his wallet. Only, what he gains is not his wallet but someone else's. So begins a series of crimes and mistakes that will carry through the night.

"Chinelato" is a grand epic of a tale, an adventure story, about a man who spends time in the Philliphines and Spain, a man whose dark skin--but also his dubious morals (he flits from woman to woman, wife to wife)--keeps him marrying a woman he sets his eyes on. We come across him in different ways and from different points of view, and incidents and characters from other stories in this collection flit in and out, giving us small insights into other events that happened elsewhere. But still, this piece failed to hold my interest very well. And in fact, as the stories in the book become less experimental, beginning with this story, Alfau's book becomes almost completely straightforward--no more metafictional destruction of the story as it occurs.

The text ends with a two-part piece called "A Romance of Dogs"--a single character and dogs seeming to be the main items that keep the two parts together. In the first half, the character is in school. Dogs try to bite him before and after each day, add to his nightmares. But the main text of the story is about a priest who commits suicide for unknown reasons, though we suspect it has something to do with his love for one of the nuns, who runs off one day and elopes. The second half of the story involves the same character later in life and his growing insanity, as he obsesses over springtime.

Mary McCarthy's afterword shows how the characters show up in different stories. I was aware of this, but without reading the book a second time, it would be impossible for me to have seen just how much. Many characters have two or three names, so it's hard to keep track of them at times across the stories.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

On "Elsa's Life" by Lucia Berlin (3444 words) ****

"Elsa's Life" recounts a woman's work on art projects with senior citizens. She's the designated writer, so she takes down oral tales and writes them out for posterity. One of those tellers is Elsa, a woman who seems to have had nothing much in her life but work since coming to the United States--she does not go out. She just irons all day and comes home to watch Spanish TV. The real joys are her family from before her move and her sister, who eventually comes to live with her in a house that they inherit from a man they take care of. Elsa is not good at forging full sentences, however, and when Clarissa is tasked with putting the story to paper, she finds herself having to create, like the writer she is. Read the story here at Sniper Logic.

On "Where I Live Now" by Lucia Berlin ****

As with the other older collection I read of Berlin's, this ones best stories seem to have been grabbed by the omnibus selected stories that came out a couple of years ago. That said, I still enjoyed reading those that didn't make that larger career-spanning collection. This collection, on the whole, seemed to have more to offer, more accomplished stories, than So Long did.

"Evening in Paradise" essentially recounts the events occurring at a Mexican bar during the filming of a John Huston film. The events are mostly told via the point of view (but third person) of the bar owner, who started off simply and became the owner over the course of his life. He also managed to marry and have a couple of daughters. All is well. Meanwhile, famous actors go in and out of the scenes, and Ava Gardner, who becomes involved with one of the locals. Drunk, she ends up sleeping also with yet another local, and a fight ensues, even as her local boyfriend ends up sleeping with another actress. The bar owner looks on all of the bemusedly. It's the characterizations that make this story feel like slightly more than a curiosity.

"Romance" tells the story of a long-distance love affair and the misunderstandings that spell its eventual doom. Both partners also cannot move from their home states of New York and California because of custody issues with their children, so they tackle love by phone and by cross-country plane trips that take a toll on their finances. When said finances go awry, they have cause to doubt the commitment of the other. As odd as the circumstances are in the story, it seemed true to how many fights in a relationship unfold.

"The Wives" recounts a visit between two ex-wives of one man, as that man is engaged to be married to yet another woman. Will they go to the wedding? Will they support the marriage? Both wives are firm alcoholics, one openly, one not. Their drinking allows them to commune with one another as they grieve the man they lost and celebrate the man they tossed.

"Sometimes in Summer" is a piece about childhood friendship and about love returned, in the form of a man come to visit Mamie. No one in the family wants that bad man around, save for Mamie, who is smitten. But the kids don't know this, so they take the silver dollars the man offers and bring him around to the woman who seems, actually, better off with the man that with a family that seems more intent on keeping everyone down.

"Del Gozo al Pozo" is another Sally story. In this one, her sister Claudia (i.e., Carlotta in most tales) takes care of her while she dies. In the midst of this, Claudia goes to visit a house that Sally had built for herself but that she will never live in. Meanwhile, the help that Claudia grows so close to is in the midst of losing their jobs, as the government changes powerbrokers. All things change--go south, to death, as the story's title suggests.

"A New Life" is about an older woman who decides to change everything about herself. She drops out of existence and takes a new identity--new clothes and hairdo, new ID, new name. She leaves her grown children wondering what happened. She also leaves a note in her diary, suggesting suicide, which neither of the sons believe possible. They go in search, file a missing persons' report. Meanwhile, Mom takes up with two men at a bar, who eventually hatch a plan to get her back to her old life, one that involves extortion. Are the men out for money or just being nice? We're never really sure, though one suspects the former.

"Lost in the Louvre" is a very interesting exercise and one of the collection's better stories not collected elsewhere. It involves a woman who meets death--but not in any sort of fantastic, absurd way. Rather, most of the story consists of a description of the Louvre, as the woman takes daily trips to it during her sojourn in Paris. The descriptions are wonderful, and the narrator's eventual meeting of death is as surprising as it is mundane.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

On "Friends" by Lucia Berlin (1871 words) ****

"Friends" centers on a woman who befriends an older couple whose friendship over time becomes burdensome. So often, she'd rather be alone, and yet she feels obligated to accept their invitations, so in need do they seem to be. A seeming meditation on friendship, the story is really about misreading human interactions. Read the story here at Vice.

On "So Long" by Lucia Berlin ***

In this, Berlin's second to last collection while she was alive, she tells tales from all over. Most of the best ones ended up in A Manual for Cleaning Women. But I decided I'd read the rest of the works that appear here so as to get a sense of her other ouevre.

"Luna Nueva" involves a pool in Mexico, where people go to the beach to sunbathe and to feel the water on their skin. There's a kind of miraculous feel to this water, reviving people.

"Sombra" is one of Berlin's better stories and one of the best in this collection (certainly the best of those not collected elsewhere). It brings together descriptions of a bull fight with a fraught moment involving the spectators. What's so profound here is the way that that fraught moment is presented so nonchalant. As Berlin makes clear, people are more interested in the fight than in what's going on in the stands. It's like the people are bulls themselves--little concern for the deaths that are occurring.

"Our Lighthouse" is a description of a little lighthouse and the people who once lived there, while "Daughters" focuses on the people at a dialysis clinic. "Daughters" focuses on a day in a doctor's office among eastern European immigrant families.

"Our Brother's Keeper" is about a woman who was killed by her boyfriend. Or more, it's about her friend, who comes to clean up her house and who, day to day, pretends to be a sleuth, finding others who might have done it.

"Fire" returns to Berlin's recurring characters of sisters Sally and Carlotta. In this story Carlotta goes to the airport to meet Sally, but there's a fire at the airport. The description is droll, as chracteristic of Berlin's writing, which makes the tale work all the more.

"Dust to Dust" focuses on a young race car driver and the families that loved him. Really, it focuses on two young boys who seem both attached and detached from the driver after he crashes and dies. Vaguely, they are aware of a change: his absence. But funerals and the like are also exciting in a way. The story recaptures a kind of child-like innocence.

Monday, March 13, 2017

On "Angel's Laundromat" by Lucia Berlin (1760 words) *****

In the opening story of Berlin's large retrospective from 2015, a woman visits a laundromat across town, where things aren't so pristine or suburban in feel. She likes how it makes her feel like she's back in Puerto Rican neighborhoods of New York. In the process of visiting the laundromat regularly, she comes to know some of the clientele, and by extension, so do we. It's a testimony to Berlin's skills that we end up caring so much about these chance encounters, these acquaintances. Read the story here.

On "A Manual for Cleaning Women" by Lucia Berlin *****

Where has Lucia Berlin been all my life, and why am I just last year hearing about her? She was a Black Sparrow author, that great old Black Sparrow Press, a publisher whose construction paper covers I long adored. But when I worked in bookstores, we didn't carry Lucia Berlin. Berlin has a strong voice. Her writing is as if she is telling you stuff from a memoir. It seems real, and yet it is harrowing.

In "Dr. H. A. Moynihan" an El Paso girl is kept away from outdoors where the kids of the neighborhood play--kids who are "dirty," meaning from other countries and races. Instead, she labors in her grandfather's dental shop. And one day, her grandfather insists that she operate on his own teeth. The descriptions here are raw and dangerous. I was reminded of a story I read in a creative writing class, years ago, about a girl who goes to get her tongue pierced; I wonder what ever happened to that young author?

The title story is a moving piece about a widow who takes up cleaning homes to support her four kids after her husband's death. There's a coolness of tone and a concreteness of language that makes Berlin's stories work so well. A piece like this could easily be maudlin. Instead, we get advice about cleaning homes and interspersed we're made to understand how much the wife has come to miss this man she loved.

Similarly well-placed language is used in the short-short "The Jockey," but Berlin really shines when she opens things up a bit, gives herself a little more room, as she does in "El Tim," the tale of a young non-Catholic teacher in a Catholic school forced to take on a juvenile delinquent in her class. Here, we watch a battle of wills unfold that is gripping. This is the stuff from which novels and movies could be made. What Berlin does here, however, is subtle--it's no over the top teacher baiting. It's just a run-of-the-mill change of tone in the classroom, much as such small changes can put an unnamed awkwardness on our own lives.

"Point of View" is metafiction, asking us to think about why we consider third-person narratives about the mundane to be consequential versus first-person narratives about the same. It was an interesting exercise in thinking about fiction and fiction writing.

"Her First Detox" is a scary tale about a woman's first trip to a detox center. It isn't the trip itself that is scary. There, she mostly tries to fit in among the other drunks and does a fairly good job. It's the title that is scary--"first"--suggesting a long, depressing road that is to follow.

"Phantom Pain" focuses on a woman's visits to her aging dad, who is slowly losing his mind and becoming someone even colder and more bitter than before. The daughter just wants some kind of reassurance that she's loved.

"Emergency Room Notebook, 1977" is an odd piece insofar as it has the real feel of a notebook. It's more a set of notes about the people and the work than a full-fledged story. But it also demonstrates what makes Berlin's stories so compelling, for those portraits are enough to keep one amused and wanting more. That more arrives in "Temp Perdu," which takes the same setting and tells a story--of a woman working at such a room and thinking back on the love affair of her life. What works here is the voice, the attitude--this is a woman who hates the hospital's clients but who knows also how much she can get away with in terms of not working. Great line, one nurse to another: "That's neat--you still think of love at your age." It says loads about both characters.

"Toda Luna, Todo Ano" tells of a widow vacationing in Mexico, trying to adapt, still, after three years to life alone. This is a longer piece, and the fuller-fledged portraits work well to ensure our connection to the story. The woman leaves her easy estate and goes to live among a set of clam divers (reminding me of Steinbeck's The Pearl). Subtly, she falls for one of the men, and yet both know that it's just a momentary thing, ending with the summer.

"Good and Bad" is about a girl in Catholic school whose American teacher of English and American history draws her away from class and into her own political concerns with the poor people of Chile. The girl has no interest in this, being from the upper class. It's fun to watch the American lecture the girl on the need to be active in one's community and about the meaning of life, even while the other snidely rejects all the high-minded thinking. The story's ending makes things a bit more personal and sad.

"Melina" is a great tale about a woman who has a certain effect on men--and on women. There do certainly seem to be people like this, people who draw others into their orbit just by being. You want to be near them, want to spend time with them. They're that charismatic, that wonderful. But often, such people are less tied to the others who find them so fascinating. Still, you are happy just for the amount of time you've been handed by this person, the blessing of their presence. So Melina boinks one man, marries another (who leaves her when she gets pregnant, since it's not his baby, but then begs to be allowed to return), and has an affair with yet another when the husband is gone (the affair being the great event of this other man's life). Years later, the narrator meets the woman at a party. She feels a certain draw toward her but also a certain jealousy, for she wishes on some level that a man could be drawn to her the same way. This causes her to do something she regrets.

The next several pieces are really short. "Unmanageable" is about an alcoholic mom getting ready for the morning by trying to get enough to drink so that she can function. "Electric Car, El Paso" is about a ride in such among a set of women who quote scripture to one another and try to guess the book, chapter, and verse. "Sex Appeal" is about an eighteen-year-old woman's attempt to get a date with a movie star--and about the young eleven-year-old cousin who helps her but who is the actual object of the movie star's perverse interest. "Teenage Punk" is about a mom who spends alone time with the drugged-out friend of her oldest son. "Step" involves a set of detox residents watching a welterweight fight with Sugar Ray Leonard.

"Strays" involves more detox--this time, it's a methadone clinic just as such treatments were catching on. Folks are forced to go there, forced out of their usual drug and drink regimen, but the setting is still derelict. There must be hidden anger in them all--trying to root out the trouble via psychology. They make up stories. They are angry at dogs that get fed. One night, the dogs get it--killed, gruesomely. Somehow, all this fits together, this feeling of a dead end that keeps getting deader.

In "Grief" two women hypothesize on the lives of two other women they observe. And they we get the story of those two other women. This was an interesting way to tell a tale, one I'd like one day to return to--making up stories about others. But it's also a story of the two women, how one in the midst of sickness grows stronger and how the other falls back into her old crutch.

In "Bluebonnets" a fifty-something woman goes out to visit a stranger, a man she's corresponded with and whose book she translated. The man lives out in the woods, like some Thoreauvian recluse. It seems ideal and beautiful, but as the visit wears on, it becomes clear why this man is a loner.

"Dear Conchi" is one of my favorites in the collection. I'm not usually a fan of expostulatory fiction, but in this case, the letters work. They're all from a girl writing to her friend Conchi, writing about her time going to school in the United States. An American citizen who grew up in Chile, she is learning the ways of a new country that is actually her own. Much of the story revolves around her interest in two men--one an intellectual and the other an anti-intellectual. The latter is also Mexican, which brings consternation to others at the school and to her own parents. As the story unwinds, this consternation begins to play a central role in the events that unfold and the eventual sad denouement.

Many of the stories following focus on Sally and her sister, the characters in "Grief." Sally has cancer; her sister, Carlotta, is/was an alcoholic. They had an upbringing with an alcoholic mom and a strict father who traveled around for work. This colors their lives; it is only now, as Sally's life is ending, that the sisters have made peace with their parents and with each other. In "Fool to Cry" Sally's sister goes to meet an old flame and comes to understand that the past can't be reclaimed. "Panteon de Dolores" recounts the sisters' mother's alcoholism and the father's travel and strictness. "So Long" recounts Carlotta's wild life, her marriages, and the affair that ran throughout them, the drugs and the drinking. Sally, by contrast, has lived by the book: one husband, a politician. Much of Carlotta's troubled life comes from her affair with Max, a heroin addict with whom she runs off.

"Mourning" focuses on a cleaning woman--one who goes to homes of the recently deceased. In this tale, two siblings argue over which things they want and which things to donate to their church. The cleaning woman notes how sad it is in either case--where families don't want anything or where they fight over what's left. Either way, our life's accumulation is cleared out in a couple of hours.

In "A Love Affair," a woman who has to cover for a coworker's affair. The coworker is happily married--in fact, happy about everything. The affair seems to be some way to satisfy others or to make her husband jealous or . . . Either way, it takes its toll not just on the husband but also on the coworker/friend, who has to rearrange her life and cover for the cheater.

"Let Me See You Smile" is another story about Carlotta, but this tale is told from the point of view of her lawyer. She gets in trouble with the law, defending some underage kids at the airport, friends of her children, one of whom (seventeen) she is having a relationship with. The gist of it is that the police report adds crimes and uses loaded language--enough that the lawyer can easily get them off. But the lawyer too is transformed. He finds that he likes Carlotta and Jessie and the rest of the family and goes to hang with them each Friday, even as his wife grows more distant. When the case is over and the professional relationship ends, which means that technically the relationship ends, there is a kind of mourning.

"Carmen" is one of the most harrowing stories in the book. It recounts a pregnant woman's journey across the border to score heroin for her husband and the impending pregnancy while the one she loves is high on drugs. It's the sort of deadpan among such travesties that makes these stories often shine and shock.

"Silence" is another story about Carlotta, this time as a little girl--it's a narrative of her one real friendship and how she loses it. But like so many of the stories, its real power comes from the gut punch that happens when we know what is to happen to Carlotta later in her life.

Another one of my favorites is the extremely powerful "Mojito," which made me cry. It's about a Mexican woman who marries an American, who is then sent to prison. Forced to live with his no-good relatives, to give up what assistance she receives to them, before being eventually kicked out to the street, she struggles each day to figure out how to provide for the baby she's had, a baby she knows nothing about raising. The piece is told from her point of view and from the point of view of the doctors she goes to visit. The latter seems almost unnecessary until the end, when a first-person point-of-view would likely not work--Berlin makes the right choice here by putting a certain distance between us and the events in the woman's life.

"502" rehearses the life of a drunk--but it focuses especially on her relationship with one officer Wong, and most especially on their first interaction, one in which the drunk's car rolls down the hill without her, crashing into another vehicle and how she gets out of trouble via the other neighborhood drunks, a sort of community in which the patrons stick up for one another.

In "Here It Is Saturday," a group of convicts share time together in a creative writing group. As with so many creative writing groups, the people inside it grow very close to one another, given how vulnerable it is to expose one's writing. One star pupil outshines them all, however. But as it is some communities, one can't have someone becoming an actual success.

"B.F. and Me" is about a repairman and an old sickly lady. The former comes to fix the woman's bathroom floor, but like all such men, proves unreliable. Still, he's sexy. The idea of sexiness is turned around here quite a bit, relying mostly on voice rather than our usual expectations.

"Wait a Minute" returns readers to the character of Sally, this time as the cancer that assailed her body finally takes her life. And "Homing" focuses on another older lady, this one noticing how blackbirds come to her backyard, forcing her to think about all the other things she missed in her life and to consider what it means to have regrets: each opportunity not taken is a different opportunity that would have been lost. No use, in other words, wishing to have made other choices. These latter stories, we get the sense, are about Berlin looking back on her own life.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

On "The Randomness of Love" by Xujun Eberlein (5659 words) ****

There is a freedom that single people have that is not entirely understood until a person is married. A single woman or man sometimes can hang out with a set of married men, but place the person with just one man or woman, the situation suddenly has an element of danger. The married person is on guard. It is this guard that Eberlein explores in this story and the way in which lust and love can spring from inconvenient places. Read the story here at Storyglossia.

On "Culture Crash" by Scott Timberg *****

Timberg's basic point is that the contemporary society is killing off middle-brow culture--the creative class--and in the process is destroying the very thing that makes society flourish. His idea of the creative class is related to Richard Florida's. Florida's book, which I haven't read but I've read about, argues that the creative class is key to the success of a city. For him, "creative class" means essentially anyone who creates--this includes then not just artists, musicians, and writers but also techies and the like. They are the innovators. Timberg takes a slightly different view of the creative class. He includes in it more of the support structure and less of the techie: that is, the bookstore clerks, editors, music producers, journalists, gallery managers, and so on. As these sort of jobs disappear, so too will our art, and society will be less rich for it. In fact, art will become the plaything only of the rich, as the middle class will be shunted out of making a living off it and will be forced to work long hours at comparatively mindless tasks, serving the rich.

I find Timberg's basic point to be annoying, anxiety creating, sad, and enthralling. The annoying part comes from the fact that I feel as if Timberg is playing the role of the curmudgeonly artist. A former journalist who is watching the death of newspaper reporting as we know it, he mourns for his job and the loss of professional news journalism. We are losing something in that, that is for certain, something that print newspapers did provide, and it is to be mourned, and in some ways it is alarming.

But technologies change, and so too do jobs. We don't need bookstore clerks in the numbers we once did or music producers or publishers. Timberg would say that these folks are what enabled the creative culture to exist. But I would say that on another level these hangers-on were also parasites of a sort. Still striving to become known for their art or unable to ever become known, they hang on at the edge of the scene, making a pittance to survive on because they love it, or conversely they become very successful and help to promote a set of artists they love, making larger amounts of money (instead of small amounts of money) off of them, much larger amounts than the artists themselves. Now, many of those art-supporting jobs are going away. But were those jobs necessary for the artist? I am reminded of something I read about how copyright first came into being not as much to protect authors (sure, that's the noble reason we always give) but to protect publishers. It was the publishers who took the financial risk but also who made most of the money. And I am reminded of how technological change brings about societal change--just as keypunch operators of yesteryear aren't needed today, so too some of the creative class jobs of today won't be needed tomorrow. But the world will go on, and art will still be made--just differently. (The idea that one makes money off someone else's art seems to me to be something somewhat odd anyway--something that really hasn't existed except maybe in the past two hundred years. Other models existed and worked: artists worked for patrons in the Renaissance times, for example.)

But I am admittedly part of the hanger-on class, and the idea that my kind of work is going away is also a source of anxiety. As it becomes harder and harder to make a living publishing books, it seems certain that the job of editor is going to become less easy to come by. I hope that I can hang on long enough to get to retirement before the whole business model collapses, or (better) that we can figure out a new business model that works better for the new Internet age. At one time, I worked in bookstore retail. Now, that kind of work too has become much harder to come by, and the idea of one day returning to bookstore work as a retiree, as I once thought I might, seems fanciful. I mourn the loss of these things just as Timberg does. And I mourn the jobs I like and liked and wonder what would I do if . . . I'm reminded of the father of a classmate of mine who made big bucks as an engineer but whose job came to an end with the Cold War's end and who because of his age and the relatively narrow field of engineering he'd been in for so long was unable to find new work; luckily, he knew a bit about cars and was able to get by as a mechanic for a while until retirement a couple decades later ("get by" also being an operative and important term here). Me? I don't know what I'd do. Our society has become one where any career one pursues seems bound to become outdated within a decade, where one has to constantly be returning to school (and taking out the attendant loans) just to keep a job, and where one is bound eventually to become defunct, as happened near the end of the Cold War to another man my father's age, who returned to school to learn a specific computer program for which jobs were plentiful--but by the time he graduated with his certificate a year later, the market was flooded with such people and no job was forthcoming.

And that of course is also why the book is enthralling, that concern with change and art. Timberg begins his main text by looking at scenes that worked for a time, how they came to be and why, and what made them special--the poetry scene in Boston, the art scene in Los Angeles, and the music scene in Austin. Boston poets could work jobs as teachers but also at publishers and other small venues; living was relatively cheap. However, as big publications open to poetry became few, most poets moved wholly into the academy. Los Angeles had no real art scene until the pop art of the 1960s and 1970s. Then, a set of artists happened to move to town with an aesthetic and a gallery or two opened that fit with that aesthetic, and for a short while the place burgeoned, with more artists and more galleries and more and more. However, a lack of museum space and other supporting materials led artists eventually to leave, and the art scene would go into hiatus until the 1990s when more of that infrastructure was present. Austin would become the mecca for alt-country, in part because Willie Nelson would reside there. As rejected musicians found a home in this cheap city, and someone else started a music venue for them, a scene developed that would eventually attract out-of-town talent. More venues, more artists attracted yet more venues and artists--it is a upward spiral when working correctly.

Each city had relatively low costs of living at the time and jobs that fit well for the creative professions and for those trying to do creative work. Hollywood provided day jobs, or the Ivy Leagues did, or government did. In each place, a college was nearby, allowing young people to take part in the scene and to make up a large portion of its audience. And finally, institutions were essential to keeping the scene going.

Next, he looks at where those jobs are going or have gone. He begins with retail clerks at media stores (bookstores, music stores, and video rental stores). Fewer of these are around. They were founts of knowledge, but now even that knowledge is something that is something of an algorhythm on a computer database in terms of getting recommendations. It IS sad. I miss those stores too. And as Timberg notes, they really were/are the life of a city--where people often go/went to hang out and to meet similar thinkers. Now, what's left are bars and coffeeshops. I miss the large big-box music stores, as well as the smaller stores (in Athens a number of indies still exist, luckily, though they mostly sell vinyl now). I miss going to a video store and scanning the titles--sometimes I wouldn't even rent. Barring illegal downloads, such stores, if they're good, are often the only place to find obscure or older films. Now, only one such store is left here in town, and I consider us blessed. When I visited Boston a couple of years ago, it was bookstores that I most often dropped into--and I was reminded of how such stores used to populate other towns but no longer do (where I grew up, only Vroman's remains of new bookstores--and that includes chains; and where used bookstores once lived in every nook and cranny, there might be a sole one left somewhere). I don't visit clothing stores or other retail outlets with the same kind of curiosity and desire to stay. So yes, of course, we lose something in losing these stores and the people who work in them.

Where do creative people go? Well, many of them end up freelancing. Writers and journalists leave staff and become their own employers. The problem? Freelancing rarely pays as well and has no benefits. And as there are fewer and fewer regular gigs, there are more and more freelancers, which means competition is rife and wages depressed. Freelancing is not the panacea that so many business writers like to make of it. Sure, some people hit the big time, but most don't do that well. Timberg uses the example of Kodak, which employed 140,000 people; compare that to Instagram, which employees 13; where do those tens of thousands of others involved with photography go for work? We don't need 140,000 freelancers! And of blogging, which is a favorite example of these freelance cheerleaders. Sure, a few people make thousands off their blog, but most bloggers write for free--and many of those free writers work as hard or as passionately, given the time allowed, as the successful. (In writing of how much of a crapshoot this is, I'm reminded of a publisher's story about how a certain scholarly book that was expected to sell a modest thousand, if that, took off and sold over 80,000 copies because Elon Musk tweeted about it. A lucky break can make all the difference. But this isn't something an artist or freelancer has much control over, no matter how hard he or she works.)

Next, Timberg turns to the indie music scene. As with many of the jobs that he writes about, technology was at first a great aid to such workers. It allowed them to become DIY entrepreneurs, putting out "cheap" CDs and not being reliant on a corporation. But DIY artists generally make substantially less than those signed to labels. And many aren't good entrepreneurs. The benefit of labels (and publishers) was that artists could be free to just do art--they didn't have to do as much self-promotion. (In this sense, the industry that supports the arts, I suppose, is actually useful--not just a parasitic branch living off the work of others but rather letting those others focus on the work they want to do and taking over the parts that they aren't interested in or good at.) But in our new culture, the winners are few, and the rest of the artists and workers are left with crumbs. The entire economy, from manufacturing and now down to the arts, is based around a few real successes (the 1%) and a whole bunch of nonsuccesses. There isn't much in the way of middle ground. Some statistics were sobering: In 1982, 26 percent of concert revenue went to the top 1 percent of performers; 2003, 56 percent. And 90 percent goes to the top 5 percent. Or this statistic: if it takes one thousand units of sales to break even on a record, only 4,700 of the 75,000 records produced in 2010 did so (compare that to 2005 when 8,000 of 37,000 broke even.) Or this: One tech-savvy singer with 2 million YouTube views and 400,000 Spotify streams managed to make a whopping $3,000 of her recorded music in one year. There ain't much money in streaming even for those who do it well.

The issue is not wholly that record companies have gone belly-up and everything is pirated, though that certainly hasn't helped. The issue is that government has let big business dictate the law and the terms, which in turn has hurt artists. For one, there's the monopolization of radio stations by Clear Channel, made possible by a deregulation act of Congress in the 1990s. Now, most "local" radio stations are actually just streams from a centralized network (much like most "local" newspapers are now streams from a centralized news service). There's little space for newcomers (though this is kind of a return to radio of the early 1970s, back when major labels dictated a lot of what got played, before indie rock and small labels became a phenomenon in the 1980s and 1990s). For two, if record companies were both the parasites living off artists and the enablers of artists, today's parasites and enablers are tech companies, and the tech companies pay a whole lot less, if anything at all. The artists may be able to more easily release materials into distribution via these new technological avenues, but unlike radio, these avenues don't really encourage people to run out and buy the album if they like it: they can just stream the song again, for less than a penny. Hence, virtually all the profits go to the tech companies. This whole discussion made me really sad and a little angry--but even now I keep thinking about the origins of the copyright law, and it seems to me in many ways that things never really change and that what Timberg is bemoaning is something that's pretty much always been true, though to differing degrees by decade.

Timberg next turns his attention to architecture, where the unemployment rate among professionals was around 9 percent at the time he was writing, and for those newly out of college around 13 percent. Pay is not good either--and never really was: beginning teacher salaries that stay at beginning teacher salaries. But this chapter, which also discusses graphic designers, is really about how the recession killed off work for many such professionals and how the recovery has not brought that work back at the same price point. Everyone is struggling to find work, and when they do, it is for less pay. I feel so blessed to have had a job during the Great Recession, but it doesn't make me any less anxious to know there are so many out there that were so negatively affected.

Another chapter focuses on the lack of outcry about the loss of these creative jobs. I'm not sure I completely agree here. Sure, we hear more about the loss of manufacturing jobs (that's what Trump based much of his campaign on), but it's not like the death of journalism or the killing off of physical bookstores or the pittance that Spotify pays (as denoted by Taylor Swift's refusal to have her music on it) is without reporting. I know the these various professions are hurting. Granted, as Timberg notes, some people do take the loss of such professions less seriously. When a chamber orchestra goes belly up, some people will say that if the orchestra couldn't support an audience, then we don't need it. On some level, though, they're right--there has to be a cutoff at some point. We can't just keep supporting something because it's always just been there. On another level, though, Timberg makes a great point. Some of these arts were never self-supporting--they've always depended on patrons, going back centuries. To expect all arts to support themselves is to create a culture that cares solely about quantity, about money. And there is a loss in that regard, for some work is valuable not just for its own sake but for what it brings to our culture in the long term, in the form of ideas that come to have bearing much later than when they first came into being. I think of how things work in publishing and how, for example, a publisher might put out a book about some obscure terrorist organization that only a couple hundred people have an interest in reading; a decade goes by, and suddenly the terrorist organization makes a big splash and now folks are scrambling for information about it--that's why we shouldn't just publish works about PewDiePie and the Kardashians or about what's hot now. That obscure research has value--sometimes we don't know how much value until decades later. If we are concerned about bottom line only, then those kind of works will never come to be, and when the need for that work arises, we'll be left blindsided until someone who starts from scratch can come up with it in a hurry, and that someone might well not have the perspective granted to one who is not writing at the heat of the moment, when we tend to view things with hysteria.

My concern with Timberg's argument is that there's so much focus on what we're losing, on the world that was. But as I noted earlier, technologies change--and that is true in the arts the same as it is true in manufacturing. We have to adapt. The issue as I see it isn't to fight against such progress but to find new ways, new models, that help us further the arts and that provide jobs for those pushed out of their old jobs. Timberg notes that only the rich will be left with the ability to live off their art. I would counter that if art really does become democratized so that everyone can do it, then everyone who wants to will be doing it (though in some cases the cost of technology might act as a barrier--even as it did in the past: that's why only the rich back then could fund a movie or by extension make one, employing various others in the process); the rich won't be living off their art--they'll be sponsoring it or doing it as a hobby, the same as other poorer people will be doing it as a hobby, assuming they can afford the technological means. The issue is really one of control over the means of production (and distribution). As human capital becomes cheaper and less necessary, it is only those at the top, with the ability to move culture around, that make money off the arts--or manufacturing or whatever task has to be done. That's the issue, that technology arguably is getting to a place where our productivity is increasing to the extent that workers no longer have enough to do in a single job to be able to make a living at it. We have to figure out ways to make up for these increases in productivity. Shorten the work week, for example, but somehow insist that yearly wages for that work remain the comparable (it's been done--as work weeks shrunk to forty hours from the fifty or sixty that were typical a century earlier). Or find some means by which people can accumulate even more. If I as a printer can do the work that it used to take two people to do, for example, either my sales need to double so that I can keep my employee or I need to cut both our hours by half while keeping the price for our product the same.

In some ways, the creative arts really are the future. How do we make them pay, or how do we pay for them fairly, is the question. As the professions surrounding those arts become defunct--typists aren't as necessary because writers can edit and draft on computer and don't have to type everything over again, book reviewers aren't as necessary because any enthusiast with a blog now has a platform from which to dessiminate their enthusiasm for a work, and so on)--it is the task of conceiving the actual art that becomes the real source from which machines derive their part of the labor. (This is not to say that I don't respect a professional and learned book reviewer, who usually has more and better things to say.) At this point, I don't see satisfactory books being written by computer or movies being made by software--the machines help speed the process, but the ideas still come from us human beings. In a future where machines do almost everything except come up with the creative idea--the seed of the art--it is those who have the seed who should be paid. I guess the issue here is that only so many ideas catch on. Ask any musician or writer. One can labor for years, producing new work, with little attention from the public; then, one day one song or one book somehow resonates with others, and a career is born (or sometimes not, as any one-hit wonder can attest). That's no way to guarantee a living wage for vast numbers of people.

The same is true in manufacturing to some extent (only a few ideas catch on and become things people want to buy). Three-D printing will soon make it possible for anyone (with enough money to buy such a machine, which itself is likely to drop in price) to manufacture a good in his or her home. The real work then becomes not the manufacture (or even to some extent the heavy details of the design, which could also be done via computers) but the initial spark of the idea. But this raises another question, beyond distributing income when only a handful of ideas catch on: how does one get paid for even a good idea? Patents and copyright were the government's way to guarantee such payment. However, computer technology makes sharing and piracy super easy, where once costs of entering a market were what kept a single person from stealing (and it's a lot easier and efficient to go after someone making thousands of copies illegally than to go after one person who makes a single copy in his/her garage multiplied by thousands). This is another place where new models are needed--to guarantee a fair wage for the creators.

This brings us to newspapers, the subject of one of the longer chapters in Timberg's book--and a sad one to read. Timberg notes rightly how newspapers are the voice and soul of a community--or were. Now, the Internet siphons off most of the profits. Internet advertising pays pennies to the dollar against print (about 6 percent by my reckoning), and as time goes on, aggregators are getting more and more of the hits rather than the ones actually providing the information, meaning the revenue ends up going to some entity that merely copies stories rather than actually produces it itself. The top ten sites, Timberg notes, accounted for 31 percent of all Web traffic in 2001; by 2010, they accounted for 75 percent. The proliferation of sites has also meant a breakdown in objective sources (which is really a return to the newspapers of the 1800s, which often took very clear political stances to appeal to a narrow band of readers rather than, as became common in the twentieth century, trying to avoid clear stances by being neutral so as to avoid offending anyone and thus gain market share). That means that we tend to read what we already agree with--even if it's fabricated. You know, fake news, which became an issue in this past election. One statistic that made me laugh: 29 percent of Republicans in Louisiana blame Obama for the lousy Hurricane Katrina response in 2005, four years before Obama even took office.

However, as Timberg brings to light, the death of newspaper journalism really began before the Internet took hold. It began in the 1990s, as corporations bought up local and family papers in order to turn them into profit-making centers. The papers actually made record profits in the 1990s, even as they began to substantially trim and lay off staff. And instead of investing those profits into the papers themselves, those profits went to Wall Street investors, which meant that papers were not truly prepared for what would happen to them as digital really took hold. Now, often, papers even outsource their local writing to India and the Philippines for pennies per story. As a This American Life episode recounted, the way these stories get written is often via someone grabbing a transcript of a city council meeting and simply writing out a summary. The person doesn't know the people at the meeting, doesn't know the community, doesn't really have anything at stake or know what those stakes are in the local setting. You end up with a sort of factual document without much in the way of substance or proffered understanding. (Timberg's accounts of newspaper layoffs during the high day of profit reminded me of a job I had that was lost to a buyout. We, too, had been making record profits, so it seemed a good time to sell the company to another. Years earlier, before I came on staff, the company had been in big trouble financially and had to lay off a slew of people. It seems like in corporate America, as a worker, you have reason to fear losing your job whether the company is successful or not, as either one can be cause for a layoff. And that's rather frustrating when one works really hard to try to help the company be successful. Instead of sharing in that success, one finds one's self out of a job, while investors up on Wall Street get a nice windfall. At the same time, I own stocks as part of my 401k and want to see a payoff too, so in another way--my very small investor way--I contribute to this system.)

Much of this shift in culture Timberg lays at the feet of cultural creators themselves. As criticism moved into the academic realm, it began to lose sight of its audience and of the questions it once answered. Rather than being concerned about what's good, "good" itself became a loaded concept (based on class and power). Critics began instead to criticize the canon and to uphold the popular. Thus, concerns over obscure, complex, and deeply laden works of writing, music, or film were replaced with more generic concerns over cultural works as a whole--and the more popular, the better. Madonna studies (as in the singer) replaced works about Beethoven or about some obscure blues singer from the 1920s, since the former had more appeal. Works by Tom Clancy had the same gravitas for critical study as works by Herman Melville. And so on. If we can't say any cultural thing has inherent value (beyond popularity--and the money that comes from it), then we can't really argue for keeping the (less popular) arts alive and thriving. It is no wonder that some think colleges should only focus on professions that will make "things"--that is, things that bring money. Timberg raises an interesting point about value here, about how what we value affects how much we're willing to pay for it. But I'm still a bit befuddled by the argument with regard to criticism. How can one say, really, that Madonna's has more or less value than Neil Young's work? Perhaps the death of the critic is problematic insofar as there is a death of expertise that has occurred. Anyone now can claim to know that Stephanie Meyers is a better writer than Mark Twain because there is no gatekeeper to say what has value or not, even though that person may not know a thing about literature or writing. Without an understanding of the history of literature or art or music, one has no framework in which to make such an argument, so it becomes merely a matter of taste. For me, that is the critic's role--to put such works into that cultural framework. So a good critic might value the popular, but he or she knows the full panorama of the art. Value, for me, then becomes a case of how a work speaks to and within context. This is subjective in its own way also. This leaves the door open for someone to argue that Meyers beats Twain--but only in an informed way. It's problematic to me for someone to say that Twilight has no value at all, just because that person doesn't like it. The issue I have with old-school criticism is that it props up a kind of esthete elitism. Whether it's popularity with the masses that is one's guide or popularity with a priesthood of critics, it's still popularity, still taste. I'm not keen on either being the determining factor of what is good.

However, Timberg in his final chapter raises another issue that is concerning: the winner-take-all benefits of our contemporary society. He brings out how technology has enabled people to reach much broader audiences but at the same time stripped our local communities of local art. Live performances die in favor of recorded ones. We need only look at the way in which movies displaced live theater. With that also came financial disparities: without film, actors working locally might make similar amounts to other people; movie actors--successful ones, that is--make multiple hundreds more than the viewers watching them, while other actors have to have day jobs. We see this effect in almost every art. Best-seller lists, for example, used to have much more diversity, but now, because of discounting, the effect of being a best-seller is multiplied. A stat he quotes: five of 1978's best-sellers were from authors who had had top-twenty best-sellers in the past five years; in 1990, that number was nine of the top ten. Indeed, I noticed this difference in creating my World War II best-seller reading list based on Publishers Weekly listings. The list was very diverse, but when you get to the 1990s, something like eight of the ten number-one best-selling novels for each year over the decade were by John Grisham. Winner-take-all indeed. Music has similar issues. And movies, where cheap technology has made making movies on a shoestring much easier, have moved more and more toward big-budget movies in terms of production by major studios so that more revenue can be made and the films can be distributed overseas. So small film-makers have seen their product lose out on distribution. About the only "art" that seems to be newly thriving, Timberg says, is cooking, which he says isn't an art, something I might disagree with him on on several levels. It has the advantage of having to be made locally, I suppose, but then one could also argue that chain restaurants do away with middling success in this arena as well--if you want to argue that point. And that gets back to how what we have today in the arts is in some sense a matter of how you see it. Back in 1978, for example, fewer people had access to publication than they do today, so in a sense, authors are better off; on the other hand, most of those authors don't make enough to support themselves. Same would go for music and musicians, or movie makers. Distribution is actually easier today than it was in the past (unlike what Timberg argues), as is production, but getting your work noticed among the glut of available creative work is much more difficult--perhaps because there is so much more of it. I don't know that in this sense "winner-take-all" is a bad thing, if more people have the ability to share, even if fewer can make a living off it.

Where winner-take-all is scary is when it moves into general economic trends, which Timberg certainly references. And technology certainly has its hand in this, as evidenced by his example of an actor. In 1965, for example, Timberg notes, the average CEO earned twenty times that of his employees; today, the average is 380 times more. Since the recession of 2008, 95 percent of the economies' gains have gone to the top 1 percent, and more then 60 percent to the top 0.1 percent. The lower 40 percent actually saw wages go down by 6 percent in real terms. In the sense that technology favors a few, distant though they may be, over a wider diversity of local talent, such trends are very disturbing. (Think of how a local musician might have more opportunities for paid work from live performances if recorded music from a number 1 star produced on the other side of the country wasn't available to take his or her place--at dance parties, weddings, clubs, restaurants, etc.) The middle class is slowly dying, with more and more of the wealth going to those who already have it. And yet, what stands out in most of our minds are the breakthrough stars--the everyman folks who somehow manage to make it big, the Jeremy Lin basketball players who show us that if we're just given a chance, we could be a star too. But only a few will be stars--and only a few are even given such a chance.

In some ways, Timberg's angst with regard to the last thought reminds me a bit of growing up in Los Angeles, the home of the Hollywood dream. There is this feeling that if you fail to make it big (at something), you're a loser. And everyone is trying to get into that winning slot. It can be depressing. So while being around so much art in L.A. was exhilirating growing up, in other ways getting out of that area and away from that mindset was a boon for me.

In the conclusion, Timberg pleas for the ways in which the arts actually improve society as a whole and should be valued for themselves. This is one of the issues that grad students I went to school with wrestled with--twenty years ago. What exactly is the value of the arts? And how do we decipher good from bad art? Unfortunately, while much of what Timberg has to say in his book provides good cause to be alarmed, this final section for me ends up not wringing true. Timberg essentially idealizes the twentieth century, especially from about 1920 to 1980. But I'm not so inclined to believe that the so-called creative artists had it so good then either or that it is it so much worse now. Earlier this evening I watched a brilliant film called Primer. It was shot for seven thousand dollars. It made maybe half a million. The film could not and would not have been made in the period Timberg writes about. Sure, studios didn't insist on making big budget knockouts or only distributing them, but complex films by novices still weren't likely to get made--and back then, technological costs would have stopped an indie filmmaker from even being able to do so. Great art is still happening. And while it's hard now to make a living as a musician, it was hard then to make it as a musician as well, when if you weren't lucky enough to get a recording company to back you, you were mostly out of luck or were going to spend a bundle to make and release the work yourself. Timberg looks at those who succeeded then and paints that as being typical. Me, I'm not so sure. There's a reason poets and writers ended up in the academy. The creative arts have always been jobs that are risky financial ventures for their purveyors.

Perhaps the bigger question is how is it best for our society to show the value of art? Should money--whether big money or simply mediocre money that lets you survive--have anything to do with art, and if so, to what extent? The real issues of life are not those of economics. Money is what allows us to survive. If art somehow can be squeezed away from concerns about getting by or getting rich, then it will be that much deeper and richer for it. And arguably, much as is happening in the foodie culture that has found popularity of late, it will be local--made and consumed by our friends and neighbors. And it will be made because someone has passion, much as Timberg had to write this book, a book that gave me much to think about and respond to.