Author Archives: Mike

Hard Refresh

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In Pynchon’s 2009 novel Inherent Vice, lovable lead and burnout Los Angeles private investigator Doc Sportello stumbles across an early iteration of the world wide web. A young kid named Sparky, which in the Pynchon universe may be a nickname or an actual name, helps Doc use the emerging technology to track down a lead on a missing person, and adds that “someday everybody’s gonna wake up to find they’re under surveillance they can’t escape. Skips won’t be able to skip no more, maybe by then there’ll be no place to skip to.”

The line felt like a teaser for Pynchon works to come. Expectations (mine, at least) went higher when it was made known that Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge would be set in 2001, his first foray into the networked age. It was reasonable to assume that the novel would center around precisely the kind of monitoring and manipulation that has paranoiacs and libertarians and even average citizens riled up these days. The approach would be perfectly consistent with his well-worn subjects of paranoia and conspiracy, not to mention journeys, as skips try to find places to skip to.

Which explains why it takes a while to realize that paranoia is not really what Bleeding Edge is about.  Continue reading

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Fiction Advocate of the Day: B.J. Novak

aka Ryan from The Office. Not as well known as a writer and director on the same show. He wins today for making a book trailer I actually enjoyed watching.

Novak’s collection of stories, One More Thing, comes out on February 4th. Pre-Regular-order it here.

C’est ce qu’elle a dit.

- Michael Moats

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WHAT TO READ: “Obama, Melville and the Tea Party” by Greg Grandin

FA MELVILLE

Last weekend the New York Times ran an interesting piece on race, politics, the Tea Party and President Obama.

That’s something you could say most weekends, really. But last weekend, the piece also used a lesser-known Herman Melville novel Benito Cereno as the basis for some of the most clarifying insights the paper has yet published in its multiple attempts to define our odd moment of supposedly post-racial politics.

Published in late 1855, as the United States moved toward the Civil War, Benito Cereno is one of the most despairing stories in American literature. Amasa Delano represents a new kind of racism, based not on theological or philosophical doctrine but rather on the emotional need to measure one’s absolute freedom in inverse relation to another’s absolute slavishness.

The article is a fascinating exploration of the racial tension and fear we tend to encounter today: Innocently ignorant; exploited by those who know how to tap into its fervor while staying verbally sanitary and maintaining plausible deniability; a racism that most people will insist does not exist.

If you’ve ever struggled to explain why the Tea Party or blanket Republican opposition to everything Obama is rooted in racism — or at least empowered by it — “Obama, Melville and the Tea Party” offers at least part of the answer. It skips over the obvious, lingering stereotypes, like assuming that Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman is nothing but a dumb thug* when the dude has a degree from Stanford University. Instead, it lays bare the forces that enable someone as lacking in content of character as Sarah Palin to “honor” Martin Luther King, Jr. by upbraiding the nation’s first African American President for “playing the race card.”

Despite the indignity sparked by the words of worthless commentators like Palin, the article, and Melville’s novel, should be read as sympathetic. Rather than exposing villainy, the piece reveals a common reflex of the human condition, and the blindspot it tends to occupy. Something that is difficult to erase or overcome, no matter how many times Upworthy makes you feel bad about it. Just because someone is engaged in the great white wail, it doesn’t mean they’re automatically a dick.

Read “Obama, Melville and the Tea Party” at the New York Times.

* Tensions run high here, so let me just be clear that no one is saying he’s not an asshole. Aside from our editor Brian, who is San Francisco through and through, this blog takes no position on that matter except to say that being an asshole is something that has always transcended categories of division.

- Michael Moats

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Book of Today: Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

blood-meridian

Because… well, you should just see for yourself.

- Michael Moats

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Book of Today: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen.

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Because of all the authors out there, Jonathan Franzen is one of the few who probably knows that today is National Bird Day.

- Michael Moats

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Books that Mattered in 2013: The Price of Inequality

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The Price of Inequality, published in 2012, was one of the first and most prominent books to address the increasingly important topic of income inequality, and helped to expand the conversation beyond the rag-tag group of squatters in Zucotti Park and into the larger civic discourse. Miley Cyrus and all the healthcare.gov trouble will be remembered as major things that happened last year, but the steady drumbeat of attention paid to inequality and its effects was the most sustained and meaningful topic of 2013.

President Obama is talking about it. Pope Francis is talking about it, saying that “Inequality is the root of social ills.” Fast food workers are marching for a raise in the minimum wage, an issue that is getting serious consideration in places like Bloomberg Businessweek.

BBBW Minimum Wage

The New York Times ran a series called The Great Divide, while the New Yorker mapped income inequality along the city’s subway map. In November, Switzerland held a vote to forbid companies from paying their highest paid employee more than 12 times what they pay the lowest compensated — on the premise that no one person should make more in a month than someone else makes in a full year. The referendum failed, but the issue is not going away.

See other Books that Mattered in 2013.

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Books that Mattered in 2013: Extraordinary Books by Women

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The last 12 months were crammed with great and celebrated books. The Flamethrowers. Men We Reaped. The Goldfinch. Life After Life. Vampires in the Lemon Grove. The Interestings. Lean In. MaddAddam. Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin. Booker prize winner The Luminaries. Flannery O’Connor’s Prayer Journal. Tampa. Night Film. Bough Down. The Lowland. Speedboat. The Woman Upstairs. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roose­velt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism.  

If you’re not too busy trying to read them all, you might want to go see the adaptation of Catching Fire in the theater. While you’re out, you may also feel the urge to pick up some Alice Munro following her well-deserved Nobel Prize in Literature.

Then, if you get a chance, you might see if any of the books written by men in 2013 are worth reading.

As we suspected back in August, 2013 was the Year of Women. This year, offerings from Thomas Pynchon, Dave Eggers (both of whom, FYI, wrote books with female protagonists), and even the darling George Saunders we’re overshadowed by the excitement around The Luminaries, by 28-year-old Elanor Catton, or The Flamethrowers, the second novel from Rachel Kushner. Allie Brosh had ‘em laughing, and dressing up in costume, at readings of Hyperbole and a Half around the country, and Joyce Carol Oates’ annual novel The Accursed was said by many to be one of her best, or at least one of her strangest. The trend was so strong that J.K. Rowling tried to release The Cuckoo’s Calling under a man’s name, only to be swiftly revealed as her true female self.

Strangely, no one seems to have much noticed The Year of Women, or wagered a guess as to why so much of the interesting and ambitious writing of the past year came from women. We welcome your ideas, but for now we’ll go ahead and take this as a good sign. The books above were never labeled or categorized as “great women’s books” — they’re just great books that people loved. It’s the best rebuke to all the Sad Literary Men and Great Male Narcissists since, well, Adelle Waldman’s The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., and has made for an extraordinary year of reading.

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Books that Mattered in 2013: Mo’ Meta Blues

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Earlier this month, Time magazine named Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson The Coolest Person of 2013. The award confirms a truth universally acknowledged: that everybody loves Questlove. This in itself is a notable phenomenon in our day and age. Who else can you say that about? Not Obama. For damn sure not Kanye. Maybe John Stewart or Stephen Colbert? Maybe. Even Mandela has his detractors. But for sure everybody loves Questlove. Even the people who were mad at him about that whole Michelle Bachman thing were really just disappointed that someone they love so much had been rude to a guest.

If you had told me a decade ago that America would want to be friends with a 6’4”, 300 pound black man from an experimental Philly hip hop group — a guy who used to spell his name with an actual question mark — I might have doubted your foresight. But it happened. And this book helps explain how. Quest’s story is neither bricks nor billboard, exactly. It’s more fun and less gritty than a coming-up-tough narrative, propelled instead by Ahmir Thompson’s vocation, which is to make more of the music he loves. Mo’ Meta Blues is vital simply for the catalog of tracks it exposed people to this year.

But there’s more to it than that. A recurring tension in the book centers on the racial/cultural boundaries and expectations surrounding certain kinds of work. Early on, Questlove talks about his closeted childhood love of the Beach Boys, saying “You couldn’t look like me and be black in West Philadelphia and love the Beach Boys the way I did.” These are the kinds of walls that artists like The Roots have helped topple in the last decade and a half, which is a bigger deal than it may seem, since it makes it much easier to knock down a whole host of other arbitrary boundaries our society has simply outgrown. (The 54% of 18 to 29-year-old white voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008 grew up on hip hop and The Roots. Just sayin’.)

One month after the book was published, Questlove reminded us of the distance that remains. After the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, he posted an emotionally charged response on his Facebook page, which ended up going viral as “Trayvon Martin and I Ain’t Shit.” When you consider whether Zimmerman, or at least the jury in the trial, had looked at Trayvon Martin and seen a kid who might like the Beach Boys, rather than a thug or a punk or a lot of other words I’m not going to write here, then you begin to understand the true transformative power of a good record, of everybody loving something in common.  That’s why Mo’ Meta Blues is on our list of Books that Mattered in 2013.

See the Books that Mattered in 2013.

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