Michael Ondaatje on poetry in captivity

I am great fan of Ondaatje in general, and I am reading Running with the Family, his memoir of his family and experiences in Ceylon. It’s not a conventional memoir at all; it combines poetry, discussions of colonial histories, intermarriage, alcohalism, Protestantism, and the place itself. He’s such a marvelous writer that all these things live, vibrantly, on the page.

This paragraph caught my eye this morning:

When the government rounded up thousands of suspects during the Insurgency of 1971, the Vidyalankara campus of the University of Ceylon was turned into a prison camp. The police weeded out the guilty, trying to break their spirit. When the university opened again the returning students found hundreds of poems written on walls, ceilings, and in hidden corners of the campus. Quatrains and free verse about the struggle, tortures, the unbroken spirit, love of friends who had died for the cause. The students went around for days transcribing them into their notebooks before they covered with whitewash and lye.

Kurt Vonnegut tears it up

I’ve been very sick, and I am doing too much, which is when I get terribly tired and discouraged. Today I read this fiery piece and it made me smile.

So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries.

And still on the subject of books: Our daily sources of news, papers and TV, are now so craven, so unvigilant on behalf of the American people, so uninformative, that only in books can we find out what is really going on. I will cite an example: House of Bush, House of Saud by Craig Unger, published near the start of this humiliating, shameful blood-soaked year.


What can be said to our young people, now that psychopathic personalities, which is to say persons without consciences, without a sense of pity or shame, have taken all the money in the treasuries of our government and corporations and made it all their own?

Socrates at the end of the Phaedrus

I’m an idiot. Wanna know what makes me an idiot?

I check my email first thing in the morning. That’s why I’m an idiot. Email is annoying. Nobody ever emails with “you’re awesome and we want to give you an award.” At least not to me. To me, it’s always “here’s some work” and “here’s some more work” and “here’s why my ideas are better that yours” and “this is why you can’t get what you want.” It’s never different.

Why I can’t live without seeing that until later in the day is beyond rationality.

Contrast this with the delightful ending of the Phaedrus, which is what I could be reading, instead of crappy snarky emails:

Beloved Pan, and all ye other gods who haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward soul; and may the outward and inward man be at one. May I reckon the wise to be the wealthy, and may I have such a quantity of gold as a temperate man and he only can bear and carry.-Anything more? The prayer, I think, is enough for me.

50 books to add to Brent Toderian & Planetizen’s standard, white city-making books

The risk of critiquing book lists is that a) it’s easy to kvetch about others’ lists, and b) you risk insulting the many wonderful writers who do appear on the original list, including the person who took the time to put together the list in the first place. But at the risk of doing both a and b, I have to say I am disappointed in Brent Toderian’s list of 100 best books on city-making for Planetizen. We can go around and around about this: I guess it depends on what he means by city-making. And a lot depends on what a person reads. But if you are going to go around labeling something “the best”, you’d better be well-read, and this list just doesn’t strike me as being that broad or that open to different perspectives on cities. Then, in his addendum, he adds some fiction, including the rapey The Fountainhead, which he does include as a ‘negative’ example, I guess. But does that tiresome book really need more press? At least he included Calvino and China Meiville in the addenda. But this list and his addenda are standard white urbanist fare, with a lot of echoing of the same ideas from one white urbanist to another. It make me sad that our “best of” lists are still doing this. That said, Jan Gehl’s book is very fine, and you could spend a long time reading the wonderful books on this list.

And he does have some women on the list, but the ones chosen are not exactly writing from non-dominant perspectives, and there are some terrific books by Asian authors on the list, including work from my wonderful colleague, Tridib Banerjee. It’s not that I want to erase the people from the list. It’s that I really wish urban planners would read more widely and take seriously their job to understand and promote more than one perspective on cities, not just focussing on a perspective that simply creates an echo chamber of the wonderfulness of white urbanism and planning with its bike lanes and its downtown retail. The latter is like an endless diet of FoxNews or MSNBC.

You are not educated until you get off your butt and start learning to see the world from a perspective other than your own.

City-making is not the exclusive purview of planners or self-declared urbanists.

So here are some to add to the list, in no order because I’m bad at order. I don’t claim these are ‘the best’–just books I have read that reflect cities and how they are made, that were worth reading, and that represent an effort to read what people from different perspectives have to say:

1. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. Much of what you need to know about how ineffectual city government is in governing black neighborhoods appears here in the first few pages as Morrison riffs on “Not Doctor Street.”

2. There Goes the ‘Hood by Lance Freeman. Contemporary gentrification debates.

3. The Truly Disadvantaged by William Julius Wilson. This book should be required reading.

4. The First Suburban Chinatown by Timothy Fong

5. Homeless: Poverty and Place in Urban America by Ella Howard. The first book from a very promising scholar.

6. Off the Books by Sudhir Venkatesh I don’t like his other, much higher profile books as much: this one tells the stories about how people make a living despite city regulation.

7. Promises I Can Keep by Kathryn Edin. Read anything by Kathryn Edin. Just do it. This book focuses mostly on impoverished women in Philadelphia.

8. Not in My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City by Antero Pietila There are some great books on Baltimore, but this one is a good recent one.

9. Gay New York by George Chauncey I wish I could assign this book more often; it’s long, and it’s not easy to chop up. But it is worth your time.

10. Barrio Urbanism by David R. Diaz I like David Diaz’s work a great deal anyway, but this is my favorite.

11. Hip Hop’s Li’l Sistas Speak by Bettina L. Love Young black women talking about the role of art and expression in their coming of age in Atlanta.

12. Hollow City: The Siege of San Francisco and the Crisis of American Urbanism by Rebecca Solnit

Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found by Suketu Mehta

13. Jesuit Garden in Beijing and Early Modern Chinese Culture by Hui Zou So interesting.

14. Snow Drops by A.D. Miller A novel set in post-Socialist real estate in Moscow. Harrowing.

15. Kinesthetic City: Dance and Movement in Chinese Urban Spaces by SanSan Kwan

16. Harlem Nocturne by Farah Jasmine Griffin

17. Sento at Sixth and Main by Gail Dubrow and Donna Graves This book made me cry.

18. 18. The Hiawatha by David Treuer Urban Indians in Minneapolis. A haunting, haunting novel.

19. Cities of God and Nationalism: Rome, Mecca, and Jerusalem as Contested Sacred World Cities by Khaldoun Samman

20. Global Divas: Filipino Gay Men in the Diaspora by Martin F. Manalansan IV

21. Tunnel People by Tuen Voeten

22. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, who did dystopian Los Angeles like nobody else.

23. Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, by Samuel Delany. Oh, and read some of his novels, too.

24. Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys by Victor M. Rios

25. Graceland by Chris Abani a wonderful novel about post-colonial Lagos

26. Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968 By Heda Kovaly

27. Factory Girls by Leslie Chang Follows the story of young women who move from village to metropolitan China.

28. Black, Brown, Yellow, & Left by Laura Pulido

29. Young and Defiant in Tehran by Shahram Khosravi (Author)

30. Tokyo 1955-1970: A New Avant-Garde by Doryun Chong, editor. (Yes, I’m including edited volumes)

31. Spectacular Wickedness: Sex, Race, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans By Emily Landau

32. Daily Life in Victorian London (an anthology) London of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes was a terrible place if you weren’t rich.

33. The Messiah of Stockholm by Cynthia Ozick Good fiction, with a strong sense of place.

34 In The Land of Isreal by Amos Oz A wonderful book about people, politics, and territory.

35. Aztec of the City–these Comic books are cool, about an urban superhero in San Jose

36. Season of Migration to the North By Tayleb Salih a terrific novel about the influences of east and west and city and village in a globalizing context.

37. The Havanna Quartet by Leonardo Padura. A police procedural set in Havanna.

38. Smeltertown by Monica Perales–the story of the Mexican residents who live in El Paso’s company town.

39. The Invention of Brownstone Brooklyn: Gentrification and the Search for Authenticity in Postwar New York by Suleiman Osman

40. Anything written by Walter Mosley . Anything.

41. L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food by Roy Choi

42. Paul R. Williams, Classic Hollywood Style by Karen Hudson

43. City of Oranges: An Intimate History of Arabs and Jews in Jaffa by Adam LeBor (wonderful prose style and an intimate look at individuals and the contestation over urban space.

44. All Souls: A Family Story from A Southie
by Michael Patrick MacDonald

45. Allah Made Us: Sexual Outlaws in an Islamic City by Rudolf Gaudio

46. Black Manhattan by James Weldon Johnson

47. The Rise of Abraham Cahan by Seth Lipsky If you have an interest in migrants and the global reach of NYC media, here you go.

48. Chavez Ravine: 1949 by Don Nomark

49. Urban Planning and the African American Community: In the Shadows edited by June Manning Thomas and Marsha Ritzdorf
Another terrific edited volume.

50. The North Will Rise Again: Manchester Music City 1976-1996 by John Robb

A snob’s response to anti-book snobs

Attention conservation notice: If there is anything that has become more irritating than actual book snobs, it’s anti-book snobs who want to police snobbery using online shadowboxing and demanding that the rest of us–I dunno–worship? respect? what?–their desire to read books about spanky millionaires, boy wizards, and teenage girls in love with vampires old enough to be their grandfathers. How about you read what you want, and I’ll read what I want? Ok?

(I will get around to reading the Hunger Games at some point. I haven’t yet. I have stuff to do, you know!)

This one, from Buzzfeed, crossed my desk yesterday, and for shadowboxing, it’s actually pretty good. It probably helps that I agree with his #1 pick—the gross Brett Easton Ellis types who want to tell me about what great artistes they are, and how I’m a frigid, politically correct feminazi for not appreciating their grand art because they have fully captured, in detail, the horrors of skull rape. This other piece from Book Riot set my teeth on edge because it screamed insecurity, like we all need to walk on eggshells lest its straining-to-be-populist author get her feelers hurt that I’m not reading/watching/doing what she’s doing and my failure to do those things or talk about those things somehow judges her. Do the rest of us really need to affirm what you are reading/watching/doing? It’s so exhausting.

So here’s my list of responses to both:

1. Yes, DFW worshippers are irritating, but I’m sorry, the DFW biopic will likely be horrible. Horrible.

David Foster Wallace strikes me as a wonderful writer who gave us some terrific books and an awfully nice commencement speech, and his post-mortem cult-of-personality feels to me like it’s gotten far out of control. Infinite Jest is a fine book; it wasn’t life-changing for me, but I do see the greatness in it, just like I see the greatness in Ulysses even though I’m glad I shan’t have to read it ever again. On the whole, I wouldn’t complain if a movie brought Infinite Jest to a broader audience.

And yet, I think the biopic is likely to be terrible. Not because of Jason Segel. If anything, somebody like Segel might save it because the one adventurous thing DFW likely did turns out to be pretty comedic: his time on a cruise. That won’t be easy to do well.

Writer (and academic) biopics tend to be horrible simply because what makes us interesting (our writing) is the product of a process that looks like this:

and there isn’t much in movie history that is going to top this, which is pretty much the writing life:

That’s it. After doing that for a long time, you have…a book.

Writers’ biopics that do work tend to be about relationships with some writing thrown in. Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia has many charms, including a wonderful cast and lovely locations, but it works to the degree it works, because Ephron realized that the books weren’t the story. You leave A Beautiful Mind knowing that John Nash was a really smart guy who discovered something smart–they rather screw up the explanation of the Nash Equilibrium. Think about this: Hemingway and Gellhorn from HBO. It was horrible. Horrible. Blood, gore, sex and typing. Eyugh. DFW was kid from the midwest who was a fairly good, but not good enough, tennis player, a mean, belittling brother to his sister, and a writer who experimented with form and depressed in his personal life. This does not promise much. A bit like a Foucault biopic. (If it exists, please don’t tell me about it.)

2. Does commercial fiction really need to you to defend it?

Standing up for commercial fiction sounds a lot like arguing that we all need to like the Homecoming Queen and King to me. JK Rowling and Dan Brown will be fine with or without me. Must I buy them and read them to make you feel better about buying and reading them? The hive mind can’t stand my not being in it? What? Rowling’s books are fun and did a lot to get young people reading. I am grateful to her for that, and I think she sounds like a cool person.Read More »

F.M. Cornford on Plato’s vision of justice

F.M. Cornford passed away in 1943, but he is such a marvelous writer that he’s well worth reading yet. I just finished off his Before and After Socrates, which are a series of lectures he read at Oxford. There isn’t much there for a specialist in early philosophy, but it’s an awfully friendly introduction to the important innovations in thought that in occurred in Greece in the 6th and 5th century, and the quality of the prose should put many of us moderns to shame:

“When we speak of Justice as an ‘ideal’, we also mean that it may never yet have been completely embodied in many man or in any system of institutions. It is not a mere ‘idea’ in the sense of a thought or notion in our minds; for the notions in our minds are confused and conflicting. They are only dim and inadequate apprehensions of what Justice is in itself. Justice itself is not a thought, but an eternal object of thought.”

(p. 61).

Transportation-themed comics

I read comic books. You can call them graphic novels if you want to feel smarter about reading them. But whatever you call them, I read ’em (like just about everything else: I read.)

But it’s not often that a transportation-related comic book shows up. My Not Small Diary #16 is all transport-related stories.

A geegaw post, I know, but hey. It’s not everyday that two interests intersect!

I got my copies from the wonderful Atomic Books.

Thank you, LA County Voters

First, ballot box budgeting is a terrible idea.

However, yesterday, Los Angeles passed Measure L to help keep the library doors open longer.

For me, the library was the only real home I ever felt I had growing up. With the combination of Asperger’s and young parents, home was a miserable place with family who neither understood or nor enjoyed me as child. In a world where nobody but psychologists had ever heard of Asperger’s, school was the same way, with kids and teachers who didn’t like or understand me, save for a few special, understanding people. Books were one universe where I was welcome, and the library was a wonderland of acceptance and adventure and comfort I never felt anywhere else.

Libraries are still wonderlands in the city, stocked with places within places, worlds within worlds, a quiet spot that embodies the history of place and our slipperly commitment to democratic literacy.

There is a lot of criticism. Oh, the measure is “union-backed”–like that’s a dirty word somehow. “Fire and police will suffer.” Only if we’re too short-sighted to deal with revenues properly. And, btw, where were the firemen and policemen speaking out to protect the library budget when it was going under the politician’s axes to preserve their cut of the pie? And–one more thing–the LAPD had better hope that its future budget not rely on voters because it still has a lot of history to live down, unfortunately.

Ballot box budgeting is still a bad idea, but at least this one does my heart some good.