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    Tuesday, January 24, 2006

    Pleasures of the Times Book Review

    Some of us read while others of us wish we read. If we see that statement on a continuum, I am in the middle. I believe in reading, am in grad school for English (so, some reading is necessary), but still so many books pass me by.

    This week's Book Review took my breath away by covering a great deal of the books I'm eagerly anticipating, though will likely never read.

    1. Noam Scheiber on The Pro-Growth Progressive by Gene Sperling.

    More than anything else, "The Pro-Growth Progressive" embodies the neoliberal idea that all problems are solvable if we just set aside ideology and focus on what works. Sperling notes at the outset that resolving trade-related issues requires "deep, honest exploration that does not easily fit within any right-left, pro-globalization-anti-globalization perspective." Later he writes that "neither progressives nor conservatives have articulated a vision for retirement security" that guarantees a reasonable nest egg while also helping workers invest in equities. Much of the book employs this third-way tone. Yet while Sperling appears to chide both sides equally, his book functions primarily as a useful reproach to progressives who believe that ideological purity requires rejecting market-friendly means.

    Democrats have little to lose and everything to gain by embracing the hallmarks of a dynamic economy (like freer trade or widespread stock ownership) and by promoting policies that help individuals help themselves (like replacing welfare with tax credits to encourage the poor to work). The first is a concession to irreversible economic trends, the second a concession to political and budgetary reality.

    Sperling's ideas are unfailingly sound. He proposes linking economic aid for single men to responsible fatherhood; and starting a universal, government-financed 401(k) program. One of Sperling's more ingenious ideas is to devise a system so that aid for people displaced by foreign trade isn't merely reactive. Today the government doesn't get involved until a textile mill closes. Sperling suggests retraining workers as soon as it's clear their factory isn't viable, so that they have years, not weeks, to prepare for a new career.

    The problem with all this is that Sperling is fighting the last war. The differences between big-government progressives and pro-growth progressives like himself defined politics during the 1990's. But they've since been swamped by the differences between all Democrats (and even moderate Republicans) on the one hand, and the Bush administration on the other. ...

    Today, what divides most Democrats on economic questions isn't ideological; it's tactical. On one side are those who believe Democrats must devote their energy to blocking what they consider a dangerous, even radical Republican agenda. Those on the other side believe Democrats should engage the White House and hammer out deals agreeable to both sides. Sperling places himself firmly in the second camp. But in the present context, this position comes off as a little quaint. ...by this point in Bush's tenure, it's pretty clear that the White House is not negotiating in good faith. The multiple Bush tax cuts, the prescription drug plan, bankruptcy reform, tort reform, Social Security reform - all follow the same playbook: embrace the proposals of your corporate donors, then use a combination of procedural tricks and political hardball to ram them through Congress. ...

    Sperling clings throughout to a "good policy is good politics" outlook. For example, he says Democrats could pay for his universal 401(k) proposal by partly reinstating the tax on wealthy estates that Republicans have repealed. "This should not be a hard sell," he says. "In the average state, only those 200 taxpayers with the absolute richest estates would pay somewhat higher taxes than under President Bush's proposal." But that raises the question: How could Congress have passed legislation in the first place whose only beneficiaries are each state's wealthiest people? This is the question the Bush administration has forced Democrats to grapple with.

    Gene Sperling is thoughtful, hard working, well intentioned and wickedly smart. Reading his book gives me pangs of nostalgia for the days when he and his colleagues ran the country. But the same approach that works when you're in power doesn't necessarily work when you're completely shut out of it. Is this really the time for statesmanship? Sadly, Democrats may be better off embracing bare-knuckle politics.


    Sperling is great at coming up with ideas, not so much at executing them, especially in such a way that these things last long-term. I agree. But I think many of his ideas do not inhibit a "bare-knuckle" style of politics. In fact, even proposing them these days might seem that way. For example, the universal 401K, subsidized by revoking tax cuts for the rich. That doesn't seem like much of a "compromise", "bi-partisan" move to me, but it does seem like the kind of thing the public would get behind if it were presented the right way. I mean, the Dems freaked everyone out on Social Security; we could do it again. :)

    We need to take good, solid economic ideas like Sperling's and introduce them to the public with a healthy dose of money-fear-mongering. Because it's not disingenuous- we're in trouble, most Americans are in or heading financial problems, or, at best, not even inching (or centimetering) toward prosperity. Everyone is constantly saying that people "vote with their pocketbooks/wallets". If that's so (which I think is drastically oversimplifying voting, but anyway ...) we need to have ideas to confront Congress on and we need to spend a whole lot of cash promoting these ideas so that people will push their representatives.

    2. Wyatt Mason reviews Colin McGinn's The Power of Movies:

    When I read Michael Cunningham's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Hours," I admired it as a thoughtful, delicately considered engagement with the literary past and a sensitive articulation of various kinds of loss. Curiously, though, when I sat in a dark theater and watched the movie version, I sobbed and moaned as though I were being viciously beaten. And although my cinematic reaction was physically extreme whereas my literary response was emotionally mild, I would say it is Cunningham's novel, and not the film it spawned, that is of greater value. I have had any number of interesting conversations about the book, and phrases from it stay with me ("without her there is no world at all"), but of the movie I can now remember precious little beyond its having left me sobbing.

    I suspect the nature of this paradox has everything to do with what the philosopher and Rutgers professor Colin McGinn means when he writes, "Movies carry some sort of psychic charge that no other art form - perhaps no other spectacle - can quite match." ...

    One might try to arrive at an answer by making a comprehensive study of famous movies, or conducting a series of conversations with notable filmmakers or undertaking a neurological profile of the brain while reading a book versus viewing a film, but McGinn has nothing so practical in mind. Rather, his approach is elevatedly philosophical: "I had been working with the idea that our immersion in our dreams is analogous to the immersion we experience in fictional works, especially films. . . . But then it occurred to me that perhaps . . . our experience of films is conditioned by our prior experience with dreams. Could it be that the allure of film is explained by the fact that films evoke the dreaming mind of the viewer?" Although McGinn acknowledges that "the dream interpretation of film has a history," he also asserts that "the idea had never been fully developed and treated as a theory to be argued for and tested."

    For example, after citing the film editor Walter Murch's idea that television is a "look-at" medium whereas movies are a "look-into" medium, McGinn assembles a list of 10 things we look into (holes, water, windows, etc.) and then elaborates on each in order to evaluate the extent to which they inform the experience of "looking into" films. If this sounds potentially interesting, it is not.


    Okay. Using The Hours, a film adapted from a novel, the film vs. book thing seems easier to compare. Film = more concentrated. Novel = more nuanced. This is common, when novels are the basis for screenplays. The concentratedness will make you sob, of course. The novel will press upon you more mildly. This doesn't seem like much of an observation. What's interesting is the function of memory: if you can't remember why you were sobbing, does it matter that you sobbed? Does the emotional trauma impact you more deeply if it is unconsidered and, basically, psychic; does the emotional trauma not quite register as trauma if it is accorded the space of reading a novel (usually not in one intense two-hour block) and the physical control you can exert over it (put it down, get a snack, make a phone call, when it gets rough)? On the other hand, can the consideration, the self-created (though author-designed) imagery, and the memory of the experience make the experience more meaningful? And does all this change when the film is on DVD?

    I like the comparison between film and dreams, particularly as it applies to memory. The snatches of movement, blips of imagery, general senses that stay with you for a couple hours upon waking/leaving the theater- that's the way film works on the psyche. (Obviously, film and dreams are different- I'm not too dumb to see that- but I like the idea, it gives me a whole new affection for film.)

    Of course, we can't talk about Film without talking about its pretty, popular sister, Television. But just because someone hangs with the cheerleaders doesn't make her shallow. And just because someone stalks around the hallways brooding doesn't mean he's deep either.

    3. David Kamp reviews Norah's Vincent's Self-Made Man:

    your premise in a nutshell: assertive, opinionated Vincent, best known as a contrarian columnist for The Los Angeles Times, goes undercover as a man to learn how the fellas think and act when them pesky broads ain't around. Flip the book open, and the first thing you come to is its dedication: "To my beloved wife, Lisa McNulty, who saves my life on a daily basis." Yes, ladies and gents, the author is a self-proclaimed "dyke."

    But "Self-Made Man" turns out not to be what it threatens to be, a men-are-scum diatribe destined for best-seller status in the more militant alternative bookstores of Berkeley and Ann Arbor. Rather, it's a thoughtful, diligent, entertaining piece of first-person investigative journalism.


    What does it "threaten to be"? Oh, well, since "the author is a self-proclaimed 'dyke'," it threatens to be a "men-are-scum diatribe". Good start, Dave.

    Vincent's status as a "masculine woman" abets this transformation, but the subject of her lesbianism falls away, more or less, once her adventures as Ned begin. Indeed, one of the great attributes of "Self-Made Man" is its lack of agenda or presuppositions.

    No suppositions, I suppose, because she doesn't suppose anything other than what the author and the reviewer so clearly seem to share: that men and women are Different. And, as long as this dyke can see that, she's "objective".

    4. Ann Althouse reviews Kenji Yoshino's Covering:

    He gets the message that he ought to modify his physical appearance, to steer away from gay culture and to minimize his relationships and his activism. His mother accepts that he's gay but wonders why he needs to be such a jandaaku - a Joan of Arc.

    The idea of covering applies so interestingly to activism and community service. You are expected to help a group other than the group of which you feel/seem to be a part because working with/for "your" group and interests accentuates your difference, but your involvement also emphasizes an image of yourself as in need of service or uplift, which makes you scary because you want more than you already have.

    5. Paul Beatty gives an adapted bit of the introduction to his new book, Hokum: An Anthology of African-American Humor:

    My introduction to black - excuse me, Black - literature happened during the summer between eighth and ninth grades when the Los Angeles Unified School District, out of the graciousness of its repressive little heart, sent me a copy of Maya Angelou's "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings." It was the first book I'd ever opened written by an African-American author. Notice I said "opened" and not "read." I made it through a few pages before I began to get suspicious. Why would a school district that didn't bother to supply me with a working pair of left-handed scissors, a decipherable pre-algebra text or a slice of pepperoni pizza with more than two pepperonis on it send me a new book? Why care about my welfare now?

    I read another paragraph, growing more oppressed with each maudlin passage. My lips thickened. My burr-headed Afro took on the texture of a dried-out firethorn bush. My love for the sciences, the Los Angeles Kings and scuba diving disappeared. My dog, Butch, growled at me. I suppressed my craving for a Taco Bell Bellbeefer (remember those?) because I feared the restaurant wouldn't serve me. My eyes started to water and the words to "Roll, Jordan, Roll," a Negro spiritual I'd never heard before, rumbled out of my mouth in a sonorous baritone. I didn't know I could sing. I tossed the book into the kitchen trash. I already knew why the caged bird sang - my family was impoverished every other week while waiting for my mother's paydays - but after three pages of that book, I knew why they put a mirror in the parakeet's cage: so he could wallow in his own misery.

    After this traumatic experience, I retreated to my room to self-medicate with James Clavell, John Irving, Joseph Wambaugh, the Green Lantern and Archie and Jughead. It would be 10 years before I would touch another book written by an African-American. As my wiser sister Anna says, "Never trust folks like Maya Angelou and James Earl Jones who grow up in Walla Walla, Miss., and Boogaloo, Ark., and speak with British accents." ...

    Some black humor I found on my own bookshelf. I reread Zora Neale Hurston's freewheeling story "Book of Harlem," written circa 1921. ("And she said unto him, 'Go thou and buy the books and writings of certain scribes and Pharisees which I shall name unto you, and thou shalt learn everything of good and of evil. Yea, thou shalt know as much as the Chief of the Niggerati, who is called Carl Van Vechten.' ") I heard Richard Pryor shout-out Cecil Brown on "Bicentennial Nigger," and figured that if Pryor was giving the man some dap, then Brown's novel "The Life and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger" (1969) must be worth a look-see. It is. ...

    Even more of a shock was my discovery that W. E. B. Du Bois, the pillar of African-American stolidity, had a sense of humor. His 1923 essay "On Being Crazy," while by no means hilarious, is at least an example of the great man letting his "good" hair down to engage in a little segregation satire.


    It's strange to me that people would see this solemnity or seriousness that Beatty jokes about above as a hallmark of African-American literature, especially now, after Henry Louis Gates's The Signifying Monkey. I mean, so many of the canonical African American novels are really funny: Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon ... these books aren't by any means strictly comic, they deal with some of the most serious themes possible, but they still contain some truly hilarious passages. That said, Alice Walker and Gloria Naylor may have screwed it up for everybody. :)

    Well friends, I'm not taking on the new Joyce Carol Oates or Mary-Ann Tirone Smith's memoir, either. So, go journey alone.

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