Thursday, April 10, 2014

Oscar Martinez: The Beast

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If I hear about a book about the border, I read it. Apparently that even applies to translated books about the border (normally I stay well clear of translated books). When I picked up "The Beast," I realized that almost every book I've read about the border and people crossing the border deals with the border as if it only affected Mexicans. I know better: the US beats up on Mexico and Mexico beats up on Central America, and of course Mexicans aren't the only people crossing the border. But the literature about the border treats the subject like the partners on each side of the wall are the only countries and people involved. They're not. "The Beast" is a book about the travelers from the minute they enter Mexico all the way till they get across the border, and it isn't a pretty sight: a reminder that the mess immigration policies made in the US affect even more people than we normally think about.

"The Beast" refers to a train that runs north/south in Mexico that is one of the ways migrants (Mexicans and Central Americans) are traveling to el Norte. It's a hideously dangerous and painful travel method that I hadn't heard of. Basically, people run/jump/climb/sneak aboard the freight cars and cling to the top of cars as they ride along the spine of Mexico. People fall off and die or lose limbs. They get extorted by pretty much every possible kind of crook from cartels to members of the army to people who have no other source of income than shaking down the migrants for their money or the money of their relatives in other places. When the migrants aren't on the train, they're in towns that may or may not have shelters for them to rest. They might have to rest in ditches while they sleep with one eye open, hoping not to be kidnapped, hoping not to miss the next train. It's hideous.

Oscar Martinez travelled on the Beast with the migrants and documented their stories and the danger. He discusses the pinching effect that the "closing" of the border has had and how, even once the migrants reach the line between Mexico and the United States, it's no given that they've "made it." Once there, it's not just coyotes anymore- it's the coyotes and the cartel, and the border patrol is after the cartels and the migrants in such a way that the cartel are also after the migrants who might piss off the border patrol. It's a lose-lose situation for the migrants: if they screw up, they might get deported or killed. But the push/pull factors are still so great that daily people are riding on the tops and sides of freight trains and crawling through the desert and trying to outsmart heavily armed drug runners. The book is harsh and an important complement to other books dealing with the horrific situation we've created.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Jamaica Kincaid: A Small Place

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Jamaica Kincaid grew up in black in Antigua and "A Small Place" is a lesson to everyone who didn't and even some who did: Antigua is a home to many. It's more than just a tourist stop, it's not just a piece of land made up of resources, humans included, and it's not a nation that can be exploited in the name of self-governance, at least, not without human consequence. The short book- treatise, polemic or autobiography- is a quick and devastating read.

Kincaid direct her book at white people and she's not shy about it. Written in second person, Kincaid describes the tourist experience: "You disembark from your plane. You go through customs. Since you are a tourist, a North American or European-to be frank, white- and not an Antiguan black returning to Antigua from Europe or North America with cardboard boxes of much needed cheap clothes and food for relatives, you move through customs swiftly, you move through customs with ease." In other words, you (the reader) are both privileged and other. This is genius: it centers and privileges black Antiguans while calling out white visitors for their very feelings of uniqueness: "immediately you feel blessed (which is to say special); you feel free."

Lucy Lippard and Dean MacCannell write about tourism and the realities and problems associated with it. Kincaid lived it- not as a tourist but as the bear in the pit who knew she was a bear. She writes about how tourists are people, too, and how, though they perceive themselves as ordinary, most of the time, when they're tourists, sometimes they get it: "An ugly thing, that is what you are when you become a tourist, an ugly, empty thing, a stupid thing, a piece of rubbish pausing here and there to gaze at this and taste that, and it will never occur to you that the people who inhabit the place in which you have just paused cannot stand you, that behind their closed doors they laugh at your strangeness (you do not look the way you look); the physical sight of oyu does not please them;... They do not like you. The do not like me! That thought never actually occurs to you." Kincaid is just as unstinting when it comes to the British colonizers and the British who still remain on the island. She spares no words for the current Antiguan elected rulers. She's ruthless and she's amazing. It's uncomfortable and it's true. At 81 pages, you can't go wrong.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Richard Price: Samaritan

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Lately I've just needed some fiction. Years and years ago I read Richard Price's "Clockers," which I think eventually became a movie, and really enjoyed it. Sometime after that I bought "Samaritan" and it sat on my shelf for years. In between library books, I"m *still trying to read all the books on my shelves, so last week I pulled "Samaritan" out. I remember hearing something about it not being super good- I don't know if it was from my dad or a reviewer or what, but it was really good, for the first 2/3 of the book. After that, the main character really started to wear on me and I wanted it to end. What can you say about a book that you can't put down for 300 pages that still has 100 to go? Certainly can't say it's a bad book, but a disappointing one for sure. You get all would up and involved and then such a let down while you hope for the best at the end. If you fancy a free read, it's by my front door.

Friday, March 07, 2014

Robert Neer: Napalm: An American Biography

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To be perfectly fair, I read this book under false pretenses. I thought napalm was agent orange, which is ridiculous, but much more interesting. "Napalm" is the story of the weapon napalm (duh), which is fire-based, not chemical based, and was used much earlier than agent orange, like in World War II and Korea, which, as a time period, isn't that interesting to me. And "Napalm," the book, is a gory, bloody, repetitive mess, sort of like the weapon. You can only read so many times about a bomb being drop that literally burns people alive and destroys towns before you start feeling a little vomitous or burny inside. I couldn't finish it.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Lucy Lippard: On the Beaten Track


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Lucy Lippard is amazing. I've written about her quite extensively before, mostly in the context of her book "Lure of the Local," from 1997. You can read a lot of that book here but one of the cool things about Lippard's books is the layout- they're slightly irregularly shaped and they just feel right. "On the Beaten Track," written in 1999, is slightly different. Where "Lure of the Local" is about art and, well, the local, "On the Beaten Track" is a bit more theoretical. It's still situated in Lippard's experience, but there's a reason Dean McCannell and Lippard's work relate to each other- they're quite scholarly and probably fit in some "tourism theory" or "sociology of travel" kind of niche.

I'm going to blame #onlineschool for the crappiness of this review- I finished the book a couple of weeks ago and haven't had time to write the book report and the details are gone. This was one of those books, too, that every page was full of a serious concept that required stopping and thinking- one of the books I'm tempted to buy and have on my shelf so that I can refer back to it. Either that, or to learn from it by osmosis, which is what I do with most of the books on my shelves since I hardly ever actually refer back to any of them.

One of the concepts that stuck with me (actually, I folded the corner down so I could come back to it), was Lippard's discussion of the cycle of arts tourism and even the development of a local art community on a place. Campaigns to bring awareness to the cultural prizes in a place (she uses small towns in Maine as her example) may bring tourist dollars in a more sustainable way than a mall; these projects are advocated for as "economic development resources." The issue, however, is that "a region's local identity is more likely to be further falsified or diluted than researched and amplified by such campaigns." Is Marfa still Marfa? Is West Oakland still West Oakland (or will it be for long) now that young urban pioneers/artists have "found" it? As Sarah Schulman described in "Gentrification of the Mind," these well-meaning tourist/economic development campaigns drive out artists who aren't actually looking to be the object of the tourist gaze. The cycle continues, though, as the artists drive out the residents who aren't looking to be "uplifted." As Lippard writes, "artists 'pioneer' rundown areas with cheap space and become the flying wedge of tourism and gentrification, only to join in dispersion the communities they themselves have displaced."

This book is genius. It forces those who travel, or even live in a community, to think about what they're doing. Lippard uses the lens of art (and how can you fault her- it's a great one), and really, I want to read everything she's written.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Patricia Williams: The Alchemy of Race and Rights


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Patricia Williams has written a very strange book. A series of essays, or maybe a book chronicling a who-knows-what time period teaching law as a black woman in the late '80s, early '90s. There are glimmers of brilliance and glimmers of madness. Part of me tells me that it is not madness but personal experience included in a book we normally expect to be dry and "neutral" with the author absent and that I should be glad that Williams is practicing what feminists and womanists preach: centering the self and the lived experience. But part of me found this a difficult book to read and not just because Williams shares how difficult it is to be a black woman law professor. It is a difficult book to read because it is, well, difficult.

The brilliance lies in paragraphs like these that are also the most traditionally written:
The great paradox of democratic freedom is that it involves some measure of enforced equality for all. The worst dictatorships in history have always given some freedom: freedom for a privileged some at the expense of the rest is usually what makes oppression so attractively cost-effective to begin with. Is freedom really such a narrowly pluralistic concept that, so long as we can find some slaves to say they're happy with the status quo, things are fine and free? Are they or the rest of the slaves less enslaved by calling enslavement freedom? (101)
Other moments of truth call out: Williams points out that she and others are often the "first" something- the "first black female" to do something, and wonders when that will stop happening as it's a belittling form of tokenism in a way: "I wonder when I and the millions of other people of color who have done great and noble things or small and courageous things or creative and scientific things- when our achievements will become generalizations about our races and seen as contributions to the larger culture, rather than exceptions to the rule, isolated abnormalities." It's true and it's harsh: the longer that we see an achievement by an (insert ethnic or gender difference here) person as the "first," it serves to diminish the rest of the (insert ethnic or gender difference) population in the name of honoring the individual. Is Williams really the first black female law professor? Is that all she is? Will she always be the first black female law professor? Is it enough that she has done that- does it let institutions off of the hook for hiring others, for making black law professors a norm?

Many of Williams' pieces include harsh truths like this, but not all of them are encased in such readable, understandable language. There are pages and pages about polar bears and I was unable to pull meaning out of this. Williams is bold and brave in her discussions with colleagues and it appears she is isolated because of this. Part of me wonders if being slightly more conciliatory would be more effective while part of me thinks that that would be conceding- Williams wins because she is who she is and doesn't compromise, whether she wins the battles or not. In a long discussion of rights, Williams wins me over that the discussion of needs is a bad one- people have rights, not needs. But she discusses inanimate objects as having rights and her logic confuses me. I'm confused, and I'm writing like her. The book is strange and confusing. Though I wouldn't recommend it, I am better for having read it.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Some Apologies

First, and I would like never to be quoted on this, I would like to apologize to Los Angeles and all of the people in Los Angeles that I like. I'm not prepared to all people of Los Angeles, just relatives and the few other people I know there. I have long been a critic of Southern California in general and Los Angeles in particular, as most self-respecting Oakland residents are. One of my main criticisms, and the one I'd like to apologize for, is the air quality. "I can see the air even before my plane lands!" I would say. "I can't see next door the air is so brown," I would whine! "How can you live here when the air is thick?" I would question. Well, my dear friends in LA, I'm sorry. Oakland is just as bad. For the last two months now that the drought is here (again), the air is brown. The fog is not fog, it's smog. I can't see the hills, the bridge is covered in a thick layer of haze, and basically it's disgusting. It's the LA of the north. I feel a little sick when I leave the house, both because of the air quality and because of my part in it. I'm sorry, friends in LA.

Second, I would like to apologize to Elizabeth Kolbert who writes for the New Yorker. Kolbert is an excellent author and about 5-10 years ago I realized that I absolutely could not read her excellent pieces on the environment because they were too fucking depressing. I can read about wars, I can read about people killing each other and rape and torture and I can work in animal welfare (until I can't) but I cannot read Kolbert's amazing pieces about the horrible things people do to the earth. I'm sorry, Kolbert, you deserve better. Maybe I would do more for the environment if I could stomach your writing on the awful depraved indifference of my kind.

Finally, I would like to apologize to those who do things about the awful depraved indifference of my kind, environmental activists. I would especially like to apologize to the elders of the movement, those grey hairs that we sometimes mock in our heads, the ones from the 60s and 70s who make us think, internally at least, that activism is for the youth. I was one of those active youth in high school and college and I grew out of it, or something. I got busy, I got adult, I don't know- but I should have stayed involved. Because the smog and this nasty environment and all the shit we do without thinking- buying plastic everything, driving everywhere, watering sidewalks, well- it's disgusting and unconscionable. I should have stayed involved like those elders of the movement.

This is not self-flagellation. This is is true, heartfelt contrition. Accept my apology.