29 June 2006

Didion, Joan. Miami. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987.

This book and the things it has to say swam over me in a daze the weeks I read it, those leading up to the Writers' Conference that's consumed my life all summer thus far. Proper nouns are packed on the page. (I was going to drop a simile in the middle of that sentences, but I'm unable to find any more suitable than "like sardines," which is of course unsuitable because it's a cliche.) It's very hard to keep track of the mess of people and places she covers.

What kept me going was Didion's sentences, which are, as always, beautiful. I think with this book more than any other of hers I've read what she's leaning on most heavily is the periodic sentence; the one that saves for the end the sentence's most important point. It's such an elegant form in the way it lets commas drop like dead animals from the reaching boughs of her sentences:
There were in Washington during the Reagan administration a small but significant number of people for whom the commitment to American involvement in Central America did not exist exclusively as an issue, a marker to be moved sometimes front, sometimes back (180).
Such a ballsy embrace of the passive voice, if balls can in fact embrace something. But there are hundreds of such sentences in the book, many of which sprawl even further down a page than this one does. It's stunning in the literal way, slapping you in the face and leaving you a little dumb at yourself.

Here's another passage, one more toward Didion's general point and message, one that, because I ashamedly don't recall much of the first four-fifths, is also from rather late in the book. (This comes after a bit about an invitation she (Didion) has received which asks for money to help freedom fighters, saying that even a few hundred dollars is enough to blow up Soviet planes.)
The narrative in which a few hundred dollars spent on plastic explosives could reverse history [...] was the same narrative in which meetings at private houses in Miami Beach had been seen to overturn governments. This was that narrative in which the actions of individuals had been seen to affect events directly, in which revolutions and counterrevolutions had been framed in the private sector; that narrative in which the state security apparatus existed to be enlisted by one or another private player (206).
It's very likely that the United States has trained more terrorists than any other country in the world. But doesn't everyone know this already?

28 June 2006

Emshwiller, Carol. The Mount. Brooklyn: Small Beer P, 2002.

It's nearly July and I've lost all ability to write smartly about books, the graduate-school equivalent of forgetting long division after fifth grade is over. I suspect I'll need a couple weeks of review once school starts up again, running drills on stuff I so learned how to do last year.

At any rate, this is a great summer novel. Sci-fi, in that it's about an alien race that's taken over this planet, turning human beings into horse-like mounts they use to get around, and also whom they race and breed and award prizes to. Interestingly, the workhorse humans are called Seattles and the racing humans are called Tennessees. The language that the aliens speak is lovely and poetic in a stunted way:
"Has it?" The Present-Ruler-Of-Us-All says. "Has it ... has, oh, has? And all too soon? Yet, or, one hopes, not yet? And yet all? And still? So that the present [...] So that the present is a time gone by already?"
So I don't usually like sci-fi, and this is also an allegory which I also don't really like, but again the language is so great to read, and plus there's this silent and strong father character, which I'm always attracted to for complex reasons.

The boyfriend says I like the book only for its cover. The muscles, etc. And yet it can't really only be this, can it? It is eye-grabbing, not matter what your tastes.

15 June 2006

Leavitt, David. The Man Who Knew Too Much. New York: Atlas/Norton, 2006.

Alan Turing was a mathematician who solved previously unsolved problems and helped invent both the computer and the field of artificial intelligence. He also worked at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, and built a machine that could intercept and decode ciphers created by the German Enigma machine, which everyone thought was unbreakable. These decodings undoubtedly saved lives and helped the Allies win the war.

In 1952, Turing was arrested for gross indecency with another man. This was more than 50 years after Oscar Wilde was arrested for the same charge. His sentence was to receive state-sanctioned injections of estrogen. He gained weight and grew breasts. Two years later he committed suicide by poisoning himself with a cyanide-laced apple.

Leavitt makes much of Turing's homosexuality in the book, and for a while it was to the point where even I wondered whether such a connection between, say, intelligent machines and societally-ignored gays was really helpful to his project. Then the book ended the way it did, with Turing's final (and really only, like, third) love affair turning him into an emasculated criminal, and I understood that Leavitt's main theme comes out of the constant bewilderment, frustration, and anger he must feel as a gay man living in a straight world. Or maybe I'm projecting.

Previous books on Turing, according to Leavitt, have downplayed his sexuality as tangential to his accomplishments, or even irrelevant. Leavitt's shown that to fully understand Turing's accomplishments and why they're so significant one must understand his sexuality and the different ways gay men go about approaching the world. That the book isn't getting reviewed much in the major papers isn't surprising—as per the aims of the Great Discoveries Series of which it's a part, the book is very dense and technical, to the potential alienation of casual readers—but that it's receiving just as little attention in the gay press is upsetting. I think it's a story everyone should know.

08 June 2006

Levitt, Steven D. and Dubner, Stephen J. Freakonomics. New York: William Morrow, 2005.

Pop nonfiction! I've got Salt on my bedside table to read next. This is that book that uses principles of economics to show why crack dealers live with their mothers and how having books in one's house correlates to a child's high performance in school. The difference between correlation and causality is what this book, necessarily, harps on, and it's good to learn that just because two things are related doesn't mean that one causes the other. As the authors put it, if you see Y every time you see X, it doesn't necessarily mean that X causes Y or Y causes X. It's just as likely that X and Y are both some factors of Z.

A gripe: this book has rough-cut pages, or whatever the publishing term is for when the pages of the book are cut so as to replicate the 19th-century practice of selling books with the pages still together. Like, they'd be folded and then bound, so that when you got a book, you'd have to slip, like, a letter opener between two pages and slice them apart to the read quarto and folios that were hidden. Anyway, so the edges of the page, the part opposite the spine, are rough and textured as opposed to the smooth edge you get on most paperbacks and any book cut with precision by a machine. I guess publishers replicate the "hand cut" look to make a book more distinguished? This is a piss-poor choice for a book filled with facts and data. This book is easily read in a day, and then kept around to dip back into in order to win arguments. But flipping through the thing to find, say, the exact passage that explains correlation, is just impossibly tough. You have to swipe page by page. Irritating. (Okay, there is an index, but still.)

Best part of the book was the story about Stetson Kennedy, who infiltrated the KKK back in the 30s and exposed its secrets by leaking them to the producers of the Superman radio show. Soon kids across the country were using Klan jargon, which basically made the Klan less foreign, and therefore less scary, and therefore less powerful. Also, he came to see that the whole thing was just a moneymaking scheme. Here's the Klan's recruitment slogan: "Do you hate niggers? Do you hate jews? Do you have ten dollars?"

Also, recruits had to buy their own robes from special manufacturers. These cost $15.

Worst part of the book was how weirdly forthright the authors were about the process of its becoming. Dubner writes for the Times and did a story in 2003 on Levitt. The story was enough of a hit that he was encouraged to make a book out of it. We get all this in "An Explanatory Note" which opens with a lengthy quotation from the Times story, which quotation starts "The most brilliant young economist in America." Then the Note quotes the story again. Then the story is quoted in between every chapter, epigraph-like, as if the passages in the Times story are the words of wisdom we should mull over as we read a chapter explicating some new theory. This is all Dubner quoting himself. It's weird, isn't it?

Oh, most scandalous part of the book: his showing that Roe v. Wade resulted in a decrease in crime around 1990, just when all those aborted fetuses would be reaching their late teens. I guess in the end what makes this book so readable is the originality of its approaches to everyday problems. It's neat being persuaded to believe such things, just because such things are refreshing in the ways they diverge from conventional wisdom.

Kramer, Larry. The Tragedy of Today's Gays. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2005.

I thought about not buying this book because though it was only $10 it was also only 108 small pages with large type, surrounded by a foreword, an introduction, and an afterward. It's probably online somewhere in its entirety.* I knew I would read it in a single quick sitting. But I bought it on a slight discount and don't have much to say about it. For those who don't know, Kramer is perhaps the most vocal and radical of gay activists. He founded the Gay Men's Health Crisis before anyone realized that AIDS was sexually transmitted, and his suggestions that gays cool down their bathhouse trysts were met with much hatred in the brotherhood. Later he started ACT UP. It's pretty fair to say that the existence of AIDS medication and education wouldn't be without his work.

This book is the text of a speech he gave in 2004 right after something like 10 states voted to ban gay marriage. It's basically a wake up call. General message: the gay rights movement is dead, and we ourselves let it happen. Stop doing meth and stop fucking without condoms and start fighting for your equality. The people in power hate us and want us dead so they won't be doing any of the fighting for us.

Much of me thinks that I'm not the audience for the speech, despite Kramer's insistence that the problem of drugs and AIDS is everyone's problem. It's telling, though, that it was given in NYC. To speak to a Plains Gay about circuit parties is to talk to him about Hollywood, or Shangri-La. Or is it? I only really know one Plains gay man, and I'm dating him, and he's not talking.

I'd read much about this speech in the gay trades. It'll be interesting to see what its historic repercussions are. Are there any historic speeches after, say, MLK?
* I searched "kramer" and "tragedy" and the full text of the speech popped up at #2. It's here, but do mind the photo-ads of bois in their underwear.