rtod: herbert marcuse

Revolutionary thought of the day:
Liberty can be made into a powerful force of domination. Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slave -- free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if those good and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear.

Herbert Marcuse, 1898-1979


what i'm reading: maximum security book club

I have an abiding interest in prison librarianship, and try to learn about it wherever I can. Whenever the OLA Superconference features a session on prison libraries, I attend. I'm always pleased to see how popular and well attended these sessions are.

Perhaps that should not surprise. In a sense, prison libraries epitomize librarian values -- the inherent value of reading, the power of self-education, the importance of finding the right reading material, the solace and companionship that reading can offer, the democratizing and liberating power of the library. And perhaps above all, the desire to bring resources to people who are marginalized and under-served.

Whether I'll ever work as a prison librarian or volunteer in a prison library remains to be seen. Prison libraries have been decimated by austerity budgets, and few people advocate for them.

In recent years a few narrative nonfiction books about prison libraries have been published. This is the first of a series of reviews about them. (The series will be very spread out!)

Mikita Brottman's Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison -- unlike most of the titles in her club's syllabus -- reads lightly and quickly. The reader also learns a bit about literature.

Those are the only positive things I can say about this book.

I don't usually write unfavourable reviews, in acknowledgement of how difficult it is to write a book, and in deference to varying tastes. Every book is not for every reader, and my opinion shouldn't stand in anyone else's way.

Occasionally, though, something must be said.

Brottman ran a book club in a prison in the US state of Maryland. She is not a librarian; she is a scholar and professor of literature. Perhaps this explains my frequent confusion, dismay, incredulity, and sometimes disgust at some of her choices. Librarians are all about matching readers with books. When we run book clubs, the members choose the books -- likely from a list of possible choices, but always with their full and active participation. Brottman came into the prison with a list of titles.

And what a list it was! First Brottman tells the story of the first time she read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as a student at Oxford University. She found it indecipherable. Completely unreadable. Only after one of her distinguished professors helped her -- and even then, after several readings -- did she understand and appreciate the book. And yet she chose Heart of Darkness for a group of men with limited reading skills, little reading experience, and no formal education -- and for their first meeting together!

Brottman never explains why she did this. I'm not sure if the reader is meant to laugh with her at her missteps and foibles? I just cringed.

After that disastrous first session, Brottman next assigns Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. This absolutely boggles my mind.

The men's reactions to their reading continually confounds and frustrates Brottman. She wants to teach literature as she is accustomed, with a deep analysis of language and themes. But the men view the stories and characters in terms of their own experiences. Like many readers, they expect books to be, in a sense, about themselves -- to offer insight or reflection or lessons. To be, as I frequently hear from teen readers, "relatable". But Brottman wants to teach "the text," as literary scholars are so fond of calling it. She fights a losing battle to try to make the men talk about the book in her own purist terms, repeatedly trying to get them to stop talking about their own lives. Only slowly and partially does she adjust her teaching methods to their needs.

Brottman comes off as spectacularly tone-deaf. When the men react to her book choices with either boredom or confusion, she lectures them. She dismisses their points of view, she makes jokes that mock and offend. She makes the men read Lolita and defends the book's central relationship as a love story! The men recognize Humbert Humbert for what he is -- and she tries to talk them out of it! Did this woman come into a men's prison with so little preparation that she doesn't know the prison status of child sexual abusers? Perhaps, because she also breaks a cardinal rule of all prison volunteering: after the book club ends, she continues her relationship with some of the men on the outside.

Before I read this book, I wondered if it would include some exaggerated claims of how the book club transformed lives. Reading can be a transformative experience, but participation in a book club is not going to repair the conditions or reverse the behaviour that gave rise to the men's incarceration.

I needn't have worried. The Maximum Security Book Club is not about prison life, and it's not about incarcerated men. It's not about the relationships that form through a book club, nor the effects of reading. It's about the author -- her thoughts, her reactions, her knowledge. Although Brottman holds up her working-class upbringing like a trophy for the reader to admire, she still comes off as a privileged white saviour looking for a novel experience at someone else's expense. She's slumming.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that their book club experience turned these men off from reading for the rest of their lives.


join the ndp and vote for niki ashton: deadline aug 17

The deadline to join the NDP and vote for Niki Ashton is August 17.

Last night I saw something that shocked me, and today I did something I've never done before: I joined a political party. And I did it so I can cast my vote for Niki Ashton for leader of the federal NDP.

* * * *

I worked on Saturday, and was very busy, with zero time to check headlines or social media. After work, I was watching the Red Sox trounce the Yankees and idly tapping on my tablet, when I was stopped cold.

Heather Heyer was killed when a Nazi rioter
drove a car into the crowd.
I am not easily shocked. Perhaps I think I am shock-proof. But the spectacle of an angry mob carrying torches and Nazi banners, openly attacking a group of peaceful protesters, hit me like a gut punch.

I've been writing about the collapse of the US empire, the US becoming a third world country, the fascist shift, and so on, for a long time. It's not like the rise of the white supremacists came out of nowhere. And it's no surprise that police and local government allowed this to happen. So on the level of "this happened" -- no, it's not a shock. But emotionally, psychologically, even physically, the force and weight of it hit me. Men holding Nazi banners, chanting about Jews and Muslims. A peaceful protester and two others killed. Right now, in the country of my birth.

And from the White House, silence.

And from Ottawa, silence.

White Supremacists surrounded peaceful protesters
and attacked them with pepper spray and torches.
I have no illusions about the priorities of Canada's oil-rich federal government and the shirtless Prime Minister. But I imagined they had at least the veneer of humanity. Nope. It's more important to please the US than it is to speak out against white supremacy and Nazism. They might be only empty words, but Trudeau won't even speak them.

I watched the spectacle in Charlottesville, Virginia, and I felt sick. Not a figurative "this makes me sick," but a literal churning stomach, cold chills of fear, tears in my eyes. Wondering, What's next? Wondering, where are hundreds of thousands of Americans in the streets, shouting a huge, loud, collective NO! ?

* * * *

Some people think it's funny that the Nazis used
"tiki torches". I'm not laughing.
Despite the very justified focus on the current POTUS, the US has been moving in this direction for a long time. The spectacles we saw at Trump rallies did not materialize overnight, without context. An oligarchy completely unresponsive to the needs of its people, an economy based on the transfer of wealth from poorest to richest, no meaningful work, no social system for education, housing, and, until recently, health care -- a populace armed to the teeth, like its government -- xenophobic scapegoating -- and the legacy of racism that has never stopped, never even taken a breather: all this gave birth to what we're seeing now. I've seen some people on Facebook imagining (fantasizing) that if Hillary Clinton was POTUS, this might not be happening. One could just as easily fantasize that it would have happened the moment she was elected. The powderkeg would still exist, and the catalyst wouldn't be far behind. The Democrats certainly had no plans to reverse the course of the last 30 years.

The truth is, in the US, there was no choice. There's the party of cats or the party of cats.

Of the many things that attracted me to Canada, one of the strongest was the presence of an actual, viable third party, a party that more closely represented my values. But in recent years, the NDP has been disappointing, to put it mildly. The party was using the same playbook that ruined the Democrats, moving farther and farther to the right, hoping to capture the so-called centre -- a strategy sure to lose before it even gets started. It's been depressing. My activism has never been around party politics and elections, and the NDP's rightward shift pushed me even further away.

But people's movements have surged in recent years. People are fighting back. Occupy, Idle No More, Black Lives Matter, The Fight for Fifteen -- activism around climate change -- the popularity of Bernie Sanders' platform -- union fightbacks -- all taken together, have created a groundswell. A context where real change might suceed. Where we might have hope.

And right now, in Canada, we do have hope. At last, there is someone running for NDP leadership who wants to recall the party to its roots: Niki Ashton.

From Ashton's website:
I am running because I believe we need a clear vision. We need fundamental change. We need to build the NDP as a movement for social, environmental, and economic justice.
The way forward for the NDP is clear. We must work tirelessly for true reconciliation with Indigenous people, for the protection and preservation of our environment, for working Canadians, for women, for people living with disabilities, for racial justice, for justice for transgender and non-binary people, for LGBTQ+ justice, and for the right to be who you are, and to love who you want to love. 
We must build a political movement that connects with the many Indigenous, racialized, student, environmental and labour movements that are driving progressive political change. We must move ahead with a positive agenda that tackles rising inequality and climate change. We must build a movement that has the strength of the people at its core. We must unite, and build people-centred policy as our foundation. As a party, we need to embrace the thousands of activists across this country who have paved the way for our movement. Their fight is our fight, and together, we are stronger.

I want people to know that we are in their corner, with every decision we make. I want Canadians to feel at home in the NDP because they see themselves reflected in the values and principles we fight for every single day.

It is time to be bold.
It is time to create the Canada we know is possible — we must accept nothing less.
It is time to address inequality in a real way, with real action.
I know we can do this.
I know that together, we can build a movement.
Today I realized that I must help Ashton build that movement. I need to exercise whatever power I have, to vote for Ashton for leader and to urge others to do the same.

August 17 is the last day to join the NDP in time to vote in the leadership election. You can do so here, from Ashton's own page, to show that you joined in order to support her.

Thanks to all my activist friends whose words and actions led me to this change! Solidarity always.

It's time!


in which old photos make me think things

I've been scanning some old photos -- some of Allan and me through the years, others with my siblings at various ages -- and have been posting them on Facebook. This experience has led to two insights. The thoughts themselves aren't new, but this walk on memory lane has recalled and reinforced them.

Insight number one: my self-image was extremely distorted throughout my life. 

I thought I was fat and ugly. Yet there is evidence that that was not the case. I am now overweight, but that's a different story. This was a girl well within a normal, healthy weight and size range, thinking she was seriously overweight.

It was no surprise that many of my female Facebook friends related to this. We came up with the following list of reasons. The reasons are not ranked in order of importance; it's a big mix, a preponderance of evidence, as the legal phrasing goes.

1. Media. We are constantly barraged with images of what is supposed to be beauty perfection; most are completely unrealistic.

2. Friends and peers complaining they are fat, often people who are thinner than us.

3. Thoughtless comments from parents or other relatives.

4. A parent who constantly diets and talks about their size and/or weight.

5. Clothes manufactured with unrealistic size standards.

6. A sibling who was praised for her appearance, while many of us were praised for intelligence, cultivating the belief that a girl could be intelligent or attractive, but not both. Shorthand for this: I was "the smart one", she was "the pretty one".

7. Well-intentioned compliments about weight loss. ("You look great! Have you lost weight?")

Most first-world women have struggled with issues caused by a negative self-image, to varying degrees. It feels like part of being female. It can ruin lives. And it most certainly prevents us from leading happier, more fulfilling lives.

And I don't doubt that this is the case for men, too, perhaps for different reasons.

Insight number two: the future is unknown.

My first trip to Europe was in 1982. I graduated university, then spent the summer working to save money for the trip, and went with a female friend. We had open-ended air tickets and no idea how long our money would last.

I had dreamt of going to Europe, especially Paris, all through my teenage years. The art history courses I took in university fueled this into an obsession.

When I finally went, I ran around at high speeds, trying to see as much as I possibly could. I was sure this would be my only opportunity to travel in Europe, ever. I don't know if I actually verbalized this, but it was always my assumption, a constant. I could not foresee how it would be possible, what kind of life I might lead that would allow me to go to Europe more than once.

My trips to Europe so far:
1982: Brussels, London and day trips, Amsterdam, Paris and day trips, Rome, Florence, Venice, Lucerne (with NN)
1985: London and West Country (with NN and on my own)
1993: Paris, Chartres, points throughout Provence, Naples, Salerno, Rome, Florence, points throughout Tuscany, Venice, Verano, Bologna (with Allan)
1998: London, some West Country and Wales, Paris (with Allan)
2011: Ireland (with Allan)
[Sometime in here I made a rule that anytime we went to Europe, we would include Paris.]
2013: London, Paris, and points throughout Spain (with Allan)
2014: Paris, Giverny, Rouen (with my mother)

And of course this omits any non-European travel, itself a substantial list (although never nearly as long as I'd like).

My point is not how much I've travelled. My point is that we don't know where our lives will take us.

I had many life goals and fantasies that haven't come true, of course. Most notably, I am not a well-known author of young-adult novels. But the list of Things I Have Done That I Never Thought I'd Do is much longer.


what i'm reading: city on fire

I finished City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg's astonishing debut novel, a few days ago, but stories from the book are still playing in mind. I initially didn't want to commit to reading a 900-page tome, but as I savoured the last scene, I was sorry to put it down.

City on Fire brings you to 1976-77 New York City, the summer of The Blackout, when the City famously went dark and infamously gave way to rioting and looting. It's the New York City of graffiti-covered subway cars, of brutal service cuts, unemployment, and street crime. It's also the New York City of the punk rock revolution, the birth of hip-hop, an exploding social scene of sex, drugs, and disco, of early gay liberation, of artistic flourishing. It's the New York City that lured young people who didn't conform to their small town's small-minded standards to stuff their belongings in a duffel bag and buy a one-way ticket on Greyhound. And it is -- as it always has been and always will be -- the New York City of stunning contrasts and great social divides, all thrown together and intersecting all the time.

Hallberg gives you all of it. The reader meets characters from vastly different experiences and social standings, each with their own present and past, each trying to find their way into a future. Each chapter is told from a different character's point of view. Not only does the point of view change with each chapter, but there are different timelines in play, too. As the characters' lives intersect (usually without their knowledge), a shape begins to form, a puzzle. There is a mystery, perhaps a few mysteries, that the reader can't solve until all the pieces fall into place.

Reading City on Fire, I was reminded -- strongly and often -- of the work of Charles Dickens: the sprawling ambition, the multiplicity of points of view, the intersecting lives, the City as almost a character in the book. It's a bold move for a contemporary author to make, and City on Fire is chock full of bold moves. Some of the timeline and character shifts left me mentally gasping. At times, a piece of mystery will resolve in one sentence; Hallberg trusts the reader to pay attention. The book is also subtly self-referential, as the City is described in ways that apply to the very book you're reading.

As I skimmed published reviews of the novel, I noticed that many reviewers thought the book was too long, that parts dragged, that it needed a good pruning. I strongly disagree: the length is essential to the book. How can you re-create the outsized City, with its millions of lives living in intersecting universes, in a mere 400 pages? The book is mammoth because the City is mammoth.

Hallberg's writing is richly descriptive and very precise. This, too, recalls a contemporary version of Dickens. While the reader is trying to solve the mystery of the plot, the characters are trying to resolve the mysteries of their lives -- their family secrets, their own pain, their contradictory and irascible love, their acceptance of themselves. These are complex matters that demand complex thought and writing. Perhaps some readers would tire of this, but I loved it.

This review in the New York Times mentions Don DeLillo's Underworld and Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities as two antecedents of City on Fire. Well, there's New York, and there's a blackout, and there's great wealth and abject poverty. But Hallberg gives us something that neither of those works do, but that Dickens always did: humanity, hope, and a measure of redemption.

City on Fire joins E.B. White's Here Is New York, Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale and Colson Whitehead's The Colossus of New York on my indispensable New York City booklist. Read it as soon as you can.