Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Payback: Margaret Atwood on Debt

The prolific Canadian writer Margaret Atwood reads excerpts from her new book Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth on NPR's Book Tour. With this collection of essays, Atwood proves once again her versatility as an author: from a poet and a novelist to a nonfiction writer and a philosopher providing timely commentary on perilous economic situations. When you say "Hello" or "Good morning" to someone, when you open the door for someone, they owe you back something - at least a "Thank you", explains the basics of the debtor-creditor relationship Atwood. She muses on the different types of debts and the synonyms that debt has developed in modern Western culture. Forgiveness, according to the author, is often a type of debt. When Nelson Mandela was leaving the prison, for example, he wanted to forgive for all they have done to him right at this point so that he will not suffer later with the memories.

Debt is related to memory, says Atwood. Also, there is a story and a plot connected to every debt. Even in the animal world, the economic system works in a similar way: when a chimpanzee scratches another one, the receiver of the favor owes him a scratch back (they remember the debt), unless there is a hierarchical structure in which the scratched chimp is above the others and therefore exempt from paying back the favor. Very much like in politics - remarks Atwood. My favorite example that she gives concerns silver fish: when the male silver fish does a dance for the female silver fish, if she appreciates the dance, he then gives to her something called "sperm package"!

Thinking about creditor-debtor relationship, when someone reads your blog, don't they owe you something? Perhaps just a comment, or maybe a copy of a recently reviewed book! Come on, don't be stingy!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Starving for Bread and Knowledge in Yezierska's Bread Givers

Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers depicts the life of a Jewish immigrant family from Poland. The plot proliferates with themes and symbols seminal to the American immigrants in the beginning of the 20th century. As the Smolinsky family struggles with hunger, questions of morality and gender discrimination come to the surface. Sara Smolinsky, the youngest daughter, epitomizes the social changes in the immigrant’s life: she emerges from a man-driven Old World to make herself “a person” and get education in the New World (159). The hungry for bread immigrant starves for knowledge as a pathway to individuality and independence.

Reb Smolinsky, the father, is a religious man who prays all day long and chooses not to work, but who believes that a woman is nothing without a man. His vision for getting bread at the table is solely rooted in the management of his four daughters: they give his wages to the family, they work for his well-being, and they are supposed to marry to rich gentlemen who will support the whole Smolinsky family. Thus, Reb Smolinsky marries three out of his four daughters to seemingly rich men; however, his poor matchmaking skills render his daughters unhappy and put them in marriages with men who either lied about their prosperity, spend all the money on themselves, or have numerous children from a previous marriage. The principles of the Smolinsky family call for happiness in prosperity and rich life and leave behind love and education.

The youngest daughter of Reb Smolinsky, Sara, disrupts the idea of her father by running away from the family. One day she gets tired of her father’s preaching, his gullibility as a businessman and his plans to marry her off to a rich man. Sara begins a life of her own, delving into a world of poverty but cherishing aspirations for education. Sara’s life in New York is marked by physical and epistemological hunger. She works at daytime in a laundry as an ironer and goes to school in the evenings. Her dream is to become a teacher. Despite the connection between the spirituality of father and daughter, Sara’s move clashes with Reb Smolinsky’s idea of a woman. He tries to marry her off to “a golden young man” who Sara initially likes because of his achieved independence but refuses to marry (207). The dispute between father and daughter ends their relationship for a while, illuminating the difference between the two worlds that Reb and Sara belong to: “I saw there was no use talking. He could never understand. He was the Old World. I was the New” (207).

Two worlds collide, and the new one attracts Sara more because of the possibilities it gives to a young woman: “It’s a new life now. In America, women don’t need men to boss them” (137). Sara’s hunger for knowledge overcomes her hunger for food. All her sisters were afraid to tear away from the old world because of the hunger that they and their family will face with their move. Sara does not fear hunger; she is on a quest to make herself a new person, one who deserves respect as much as men do . She enunciates a social change in the immigrant’s life: women can be equal to men in the new world.

In fact, all the men in the Smolinsky’s world are supposed to be “bread givers” but they fail as such. Reb Smolinsky does not even know how to handle his own money; he constantly loses whatever he has in a foolish way and lives on the wages of his daughters. Moe Mirsky, who marries the most beautiful of the Smolinsky daughters – Mashah – as a diamond dealer, is actually a simple clerk who cannot keep a job and starves his family while wearing expensive suits and eating at fancy restaurants. Abe Schmukler, the cloaks-and-suits dealer who marries Fania, appears to be a gambler who does not care about his wife’s emotions and while he provides for her good appearance, it is only because that makes him look good in the eyes of the others. Zalmon, the fish-peddler chosen by the father as Bessie’s husband, does not care about the happiness of his wife and is pleased as long as he has someone to take care of his house and six kids.

Sara Smolinsky sees that it is time to leave the world of men as bread givers; apparently, the question from the Torah “What is a woman without a man?” has a different answer in the new world (205). A woman could be a better bread giver than all the men in the Smolinsky family.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Crippled Imagination and Its Cost

Well, well, well. A talk about the educational system never seems objective enough to me unless it is confined by proper geographical, cultural, and chronological parameters. And here comes a second book on the education in American public schools by John Gatto. Weapons of Mass Instruction metaphorically prepares the reader with its title about the statement Mr. Gatto is to make once again: "mechanisms of familiar schooling which cripple imagination, discourage critical thinking, and create a false view of learning as a by-product of role-memorization drills." It all sounds scary; the picture promises a dumb and handicapped generation. Wait, that's exactly part of the name of John Gatto's first book - Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (1992). Then, the popularity of his Underground History of American Education which is available for free online, makes a similar point.

I wonder how many books by Gatto will it take for people to really see some of the basic problems that the system has. Though not a product of the American public school system, I have a significant experience with its products. In fact, I, you, and everybody out there in this country gets to experience on daily basis encounters of that kind (I'd like to think that Spielberg was not having those in mind when he was thinking of the "third kind" encounters). Don't we all deal in one way or another with public school graduates? Oh yes, you'd say, but after their public school some of them became University graduates and therefore they won't identify any more with their basic public schooling. True, but how many of you get your burger flipped or your oil changed by this University graduate? And why has it become normal in this country to have the foundation of one's education worse than the building it supports? Doesn't a good foundation make for a more solid structure? Wrapped in this line of thinking, I do forget however that the education we are talking about is actually called public. Public is part of a binary opposites whose other end must be non-public, or paid, or for those who can afford to pay for it, or maybe I should use the Chomskyan, for the "privileged." Now that the working concepts have changed - public versus paid education, or education for free vs. a better one that is paid - I think it makes sense why a book or two or even three are not exactly going to make that change. We live in a world where the more money you pay the better product you get. And yes, the product of the public schools is "what you paid for." Ironic, in a time of economic crisis. But eye-opening for many who did not quite think about it before. Now, we have to perhaps worry about the public schools more than ever because it is likely that we will get more and more products at a lower cost since we won't be able to afford the higher price. More products with "crippled imagination" to deal with on daily basis; knock on wood they won't live in your homes.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Reason Mario Puzo Wrote the Godfather ...

was... to make money! And he did. But what he really made is the best gangster plot of all times. Here is an excerpt from Mario Puzo's story about writing the book (read the rest on MailOnline: How They Shot the Godfather):

I was 45 years old and tired of being an artist. Besides, I owed $20,000 to relatives, finance companies, banks, and assorted bookmakers and shylocks. It was time to grow up and sell out, as Lenny Bruce once advised.

So I told my editors, OK, I’ll write a book about the Mafia, just give me some money to get started. They said no money until we see 100 pages. I wrote a ten-page outline. They showed me the door again.


I finally had to finish The Godfather in July 1968 because I needed the final $1,200 advance payment to take my wife and kids to Europe. My wife had not seen her family for 20 years, and I had promised her that this was the year, so I handed in the rough manuscript. Before leaving for Europe, I told my publisher not to show the book to anybody; it had to be polished.


I got my mother on the phone. She speaks broken English but understands the language perfectly. I explained it to her.

She asked, ‘$40,000?’

I said no, it was $410,000. I told her three times before she finally answered, ‘Don’t tell nobody.’

Traffic was jammed, and it took me over two hours to get home. When I walked in the door, my wife was dozing and I went over, kissed her on the cheek, and said, ‘Honey, we don’t have to worry about money any more. I just sold my book for $410,000.’ She smiled at me and kept dozing.

I started getting annoyed. Nobody seemed to think this was a big deal. My whole life was going to change; I didn’t have to worry about money. It was almost like not having to worry about dying.

Then my sister said, ‘You got $40,000 for the book. Mama called.’

I was exasperated with my mother. After all those explanations she had gotten it wrong.

Her 80 years were no excuse.

‘No, it was $410,000.’ Now I got the reaction I wanted…

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Russian Debutante's Journey

Vladimir Girshkin, the main character in The Russian Debutante's Handbook, is a Russian American Jew who travels across continents to gain confidence, find love and happiness. Vladimir does not set off on a mission with such goals from the beginning of the novel. Unlike the regular coming-of-age narrative, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook lets the reader relish in a dynamic plot with plenty of twists and turns that at prima vista have little to do with the standard novel of a maturing character. The numerous humorous situations populate the plot of the novel with strange but real opportunities for the character to reflect and grow.

Reflection in the book, however, comes secondary to action. The young protagonist rushes into every serendipitous situation that life offers to try to change his status, mainly to impress of his possessive and manipulative mother. He wants to get a profession that will make him look good in the eyes of his parents; what he discovers later is that this should in fact be a profession that will make him feel independent and more confident. Thus, Vladimir befriends Fan Man, who promises him a prosperous job in exchange for a favor which risks his current occupation; he ventures into a well-paid machination with a man who tries to sexually harass him; in the end, Vladimir decides to get into a murky enterprise in Eastern Europe with suspicious Russians in hopes to become richer and therefore a better candidate for the heart of his girlfriend. In the beginning of the novel, Vladimir is ready to try everything only to get the confidence of which his parents robbed him over the years. And truly, how can a man at the age of 25 feel at ease with his identity when his mother is still trying to teach him how to walk properly?

The European syndrome of the dominant mother and the weaker son lines up with all kinds of Eastern European features of the protagonist in the book. Vladimir experiences the anxieties of the Russian, those of the Jew and also the problems of the Eastern European immigrant. He suffers torn between many cultures, trying to reconcile all his ethnic and geographical identities. When he finally gets to Europe in search of a new career and new identity, he pauses one day and asks himself the question “Who is Vladimir Girshkin? Who indeed?” (248). Afterwards, he puts on the mask of a a poet who ironically writes a poem about his mother and reads it in front of a raving pseudo-artistic public in Prava, Shteyngart’s name for a fictional city awfully similar to Prague.

Gary Shteyngart flips upside down the regular take on an immigrant identity; instead of depicting the character as tragically trapped between different worlds, he uses every opportunity to concoct ridiculous situations based on the immigrant’s position between many cultures. The humorous tone of the novel does not denigrate the image of the immigrant; on the contrary, it builds him up as a hero in this action-driven plot. Vladimir has the potential of becoming an excellent partner in the mafia enterprise in Prava because of his understanding of Russian culture: he can speak to his counterparts in Russian and relate to their existence. At the same time, he has the chance of even becoming a leading figure among them because he is the only one who understands American culture and therefore can mingle with the ex-pats in Prava making them invest in a fraudulent enterprise. Vladimir is in the zenith of his life while he works for the underground Russian organization in Eastern Europe. Shteyngart even names the part depicting his time in Prava “The King of Prava” and one of its chapters “The Happiest Man Alive” – both descriptions of Vladimir’s success in the game that takes place on the verge of two cultures – the Eastern European and the American.

The Russian debutante in the novel is looking for confidence, but also happiness and love. His first relationship is with an ordinary American girl that he meets in one corner at a party. His second girlfriend is a New Yorker whose parents are college professors and quite liberal; she shows him a world of possibilities and introduces him to a more international New York crowd. Vladimir’s third girlfriend, who becomes his wife in the end of the book, is an American girl who is interested in Eastern Europe and even learns to speak the language of the Stolovan Republic. In fact, Vladimir meets her in Prava; she is the bridge that connects his Eastern European identity with his American one. Morgan, his future wife, tell him:

… here is the thing about you, Vladimir… I like you because you’re nothing like my boyfriend back home and you’re nothing like Tomas either … You’re worthwhile and interesting, but at the same time you’re … You’re partly an American, too. Yeah, that’s it! You are needy in a kind of foreign way, but you’ve also got these… American qualities.” (388)

Vladimir’s complex identity finally works for him, or at least he is learning how to use it in his benefit. He gains confidence, falls in love, feels happy. Vladimir is seemingly happy in the last part of the novel when he finds himself living in Cleveland, working in the company of his wife, awaiting his first child. He is also slightly sad, or rather nostalgic for the days in Eastern Europe where he could actively use his potential of an immigrant able to live on the verge of two cultures, navigate two worlds from his position on the border.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

NYT: 10 Best Books of 2008

In this listing of New York Times, Jhumpa Lahiri rubs shoulders with Tomi Morrison and Roberto BolaƱo. Isn't it amazing! I am also happy to see Netherland among the five selections in fiction. Now, I absolutely have to read it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Fiction Should be Taken as Seriously as Fact-Based Research

Dr. Dennis Rodgers, Manchester University's Brooks World Poverty Institute:

"Despite the regular flow of academic studies, expert reports, and policy position papers, it is arguably novelists who do as good a job – if not a better one – of representing and communicating the realities of international development. While fiction may not always show a set of presentable research findings, it does not compromise on complexity, politics or readability in the way that academic literature sometimes does. And fiction often reaches a much larger and diverse audience than academic work and may therefore be more influential in shaping public knowledge and understanding of development issues."

Professor Michael Woolcock, director of the Brooks World Poverty Institute:

"Fiction is important because it is often concerned with the basic subject matter of development. This includes things like the promises and perils of encounters between different peoples; the tragic mix of courage, desperation, humour, and deprivation characterising the lives of the down-trodden."

Read the whole article at The Telegraph.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Is Paradise Lost Lost in Translation?

Miltonists out there, the news is that Dennis Danielson's translation of Paradise Lost into modern English just came out. It is actually a parralel text - Milton's verse on one side of the page and against it Danielson's prose. Critics say that Danielson "frees the reader" from "this streneous and often frustrating labor" of reading the original. Stanley Fish supposes that "once liberated, [the reader] will be able to go with the flow and enjoy the pleasures of a powerful narrative" (New York Times). Here is an example that Fish provides:

"When Adam decides to join Eve in sin and eat the apple, the poem says that he was “fondly overcome by female charm.” The word that asks you to pause is “fondly,” which means both foolishly and affectionately. The two meanings have different relationships to the action they characterize. If you do something foolishly, you have no excuse, and it’s a bit of a mystery as to why you did; if you do it prompted by affection and love, the wrongness of it may still be asserted, but something like an explanation or an excuse has at least been suggested."

In the end of his article, Fish concludes that this is a wonderful edition for teaching Milton.

Well, here are some concerns that I harbor:

1. How are you, as an intelligent reader, feel free to go with a flow and even enjoy a text whose overall effect is essentially embedded in its language, when someone actually TRANSLATES it for you from Milton's English to Modern English? And aren't other forms of rendition of the text, like plays and films, supposed to do this for the lazy reader, only that they use an entirely different form which justifies the "translation", and don't simply derrogate the poem by depriving it of its essence - the Milton's English?

2. Isn't part of the pleasure actually reading the poem in Milton's English and treating your senses to the different connotations (even the latinate syntax, as Dr. Fish suggests)? Isnt' this the way in which the modern English speaker learns about the development of not only language, but concepts, and thinking? And yes, this translation would make for a great textbook for teaching Milton's language, but would it not deprive the student of the overal feel of the text and his personal struggle in the labyrinthine "latinate syntax"? Then the real question comes: this translation will make a great texbook but for teaching what? Are there that many people, as the article suggests, who are actually trying to actively learn how to speak Milton's English? Because this is what this "translation" does: it probably teaches quite successfully the connotations of the Milton's English words in Modern English words. How about the real experience of reading the original? Finally, wouldn't the original give the reader a chance to go back in time and have the experience the Milton's English erudite (or just a listener to a public reading)?

3. In the end, there is one comment after the article with which I have to agree: This book is not a translation; it is an interpretation of Paradise Lost.