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Saturday, 17 June 2006

Travel Tips and Book Reviews

As the Rough Guide to France notes, it is wise to book in advance for Avignon. This might go double for if one is planning on arriving after 7:00 on a Saturday evening in the middle of June, which is well past the time the tourist office is reported to close. The TGV station is no where near the center of town. If it were, I probably would have gone for the wander-around-for-looking-for-something-that-looks-cheap-but-not-too-mouldy method, but instead, I am back in Paris. Thanks to the miracle of SPF 50 sunblock, I am no tanner than when I left. This is a good thing, given my skin tone and family history of skin cancer. Modern technology really is amazing. You can sit in the beach in the direct Mediterranean sun for HOURS and not change shades a bit!

So I did some beach reading:

Parable of the Sower

By the recently departed Octavia Butler. An exploration of middle class angst and fear of falling. Declining social services, peak oil and global warming have caused the gates and walls around LA suburbs to actually be needed. The dirty, sick and dying masses are trying to break in and take everything they can because they have nothing. It's only a matter of time before desperation, drugs and crime drive the homeless to break down the gate and burn down the homes! The solution to this is to, um, move farther away and build more walls. And start a second law of thermodynamics-influnced religion.

In the book, the US government decides to respond to joblessness by relaxing labor laws. In the book, this leads to slavery. Alarmingly, the book predicts a hurricane hitting New Orleans, only the rich getting to evacuate and private guards shooting at the poor folks left behind. Sound familiar? Ack, is it only a matter of time before we have slavery again and drug-crazed desperate pyromaniac mobs attacking the burbs?

This book get s a zero for class consciousness. People without insurance dying of disease? Mad homelessness? The solution is banding together, not putting up walls!!! For christssakes, everyone having a gun is not the answer. This book is like a libertarian's wet dream. think general strike people! The people have the power. I know the middle class is terrified of the logical consequences of income inequality and the terrible destruction wrought on our "enemies" being inflicted upon us, but there are other answers. Also, from an economic perspective, slavery isn't really useful aside from the agricultural sector and other really unskilled labor. Even in the nightmare scenario in the story, it would still be cheaper to run an overseas sweatshop than have American slaves who you have to feed while inflation is spiraling out of control, etc.

Let's all work together against Octavia Butler's future vision, shall we?

The God of Small Things

by Arundhati Roy is another book seeped in class issues, but in this one, the author gets it right. It's really really lovely and beautiful, exploring the meanings of love and childhood as the story slowly spirals together. It tells the story circularly, always surprising even when you know what's coming. Fantastic language. It's the kind of book that makes you want to write. It's about love and death and class and colonialism and everything that life is about.

It won the Booker Prize, well deserved. One of the best books I've ever read. Just finished it today, so I need to think about it more before I can say anything more coherent than "fantastic"

Jonathon Livingston, Le Goéland

by Richard Bach. This book is in French. It's a children's book and I haven't finished it yet. It's a little bit too hard for me, since it has some verb tenses I don't know and a lot of avian vocabulary, so I have to read it with a dictionary in front of me, so I might not be getting it 100%. That given, what the hell is wrong with French children's books? In this story, a seagull decides that instead of doing normal seagull things, he's going to become the best flyer ever. Hell, he's going to the first seagull to ever do arial acrobatics. He succeeds at this and learns to do crazy stunts and fly at impossible speeds form impossible altitudes. The fastest seagull ever! He will lead by example and bring his comrades to freedom! Instead, he gets exiled from the seagull community and lives the rest of his life completely alone and scorned by all until he dies and goes to seagull heaven. The second part of the book, this I'm still reading, takes place in seagull heaven.

Let's stop for a moment and compare this to the endlessly beloved the Little Prince. A man has crashed is plane in the Sahara and is going to die unless he can get it fixed before his water runs out. An improbable child appears, who is from a tiny planet which is about house-sized and which he does chores for and is very whimsical and cute and talks to plants and animals and befriends the man before he decides to kill himself and has the snake bite him and then he dies. Ok, maybe there's some sort of metaphor of lost childhood and the snake could represent adult sexuality what with the obvious allusions to Adam and Eve and other lost-innocence. But it's read to kids. The kid is so great and then he dies. The seagull is so fantastic that nobody will talk to him and he dies broken and alone only to be rewarded in the next life.

[EDIT (14:52 18 June): Jean points out, "jonathon livingston seagull by richard bach, was a great treacle pop hit in the united states in the early 70s. it was written in english." What's funny about this is that the person who lent it to me did so because she was annoyed that I was reading a Harlequin novel in translation and wanted me to read something more authentic. (The Harlequin novel contained more useful new vocabulary words and was more fun to read, in case you're wondering.)]

It seems like more than encouraging kids to follow their dreams, it comes with a warning. "You can do this, but we will make you pay dearly. We may not appreciate any of your work until you're dead. You'll be buried in a pauper's grave only to have the Berlin Philharmonic do a live international broadcast of your most-loved works on your 250th birthday." What a 19th century, romantic concept of art! Die alone and unloved, but maybe somebody will notice you once you're dead! Sure, the glory, but the price! Better to keep in line, keep your head down than to hope for posthumous praise. I mean, I'm not saying that I don't like the idea of having a legacy. In class one day we discussed the creation of art as being paired with the fear of death. time is fleeting, how can we create something that will endure? But first of all, if nobody cares about your work when you're alive, nobody is going to bother digging through it after you're gone. No audience now means no audience later. Secondly, even if that were true, why the heck would one want to create art if you only suffered social punishment and no reward? The Mozart-died-poor-and-alone story is very nice for the Romantics, but it's not true in real life.

What with the French kids books and the dying children? I mean, yeah, death comes for all of us, but, um. while in Nice, I went to the graveyard. Death be not proud, but funeral monuments certainly are. If I'm not going to be remembered as the first seagull to fly at greater than 100km/hr, I at least want a giant statue of me over my grave, serious expression, wings outstretched. Oh and accompanying statues of angels hovering overhead and (optimally 3) women weeping and rending their clothes. I want at least hubris, avarice and lust represented, if not also gluttony and sloth. (Onlookers can provide the envy.) All of this couched in religious symbols of course, so I still stand a chance at getting into seagull heaven.

When I got home from Nice (via Avignon), my letter from Sonology was in my mailbox, so I am officially admitted. I must decide yes or no by July 1st. Of course, I want to go, but Cola is uncertain which complicates things.



goat said...

jesus, clst, you realize octavia butler was an african-american woman originally from the working classes, right? her mother was a maid. i haven't read the book in question but i seriously doubt butler was suffering from middle-class ignorance. are you sure she wasn't being sarcastic or using a fucked-up character as a subject? somehow i seriously doubt that butler-as-author was pushing the idea of slavery as a viable or in any way desirable solution.

from what i /have/ read of butler i think i can safely assume that she was working far more from a pessimistic perspective about race/class relations in america than any actual desire to see the state you describe as a solution. she is in fact known in sci-fi criticism for exploring racial and class issues with anything but a middle-class sensibility.

on a side note, she was one of the only female african-american writers of sci-fi, ever, and won every sci-fi-related literary award known to man, plus the first mcarthur genius grant ever given to a sci-fi writer. that doesn't always mean anything but in her case it was definitely deserved. just saying.

uncola said...

Goat - I don't think clst's critic claimed that Butler was arguing for neo-slavery in the book. Her critic was more about how the entire idea of collective action isn't even considered a viable solution.

That being said, I think the book is realistic about how things would go down in the US.


Also, The God of Small Things is really, really brilliant.

Les said...

The main character, an African American 18 year old woman, was indeed horrified by the poverty, desperation and slavery. she hated it. But her solution was to retreat to some place more remote, build higher walls and put her faith in God. That's not much of a solution.

There is a character in the story who has a small rabbit farm within the middle class walled compound. He sells everything but live rabbits. Because people keep breaking in, the compound organized an armed patrol and neighborhood watch. This is lauded as the right direction, but too little a step. They need more and bigger guns. In this scenario, the community assumes the risk and the guy with rabbits gets the profit. His selling practices in the book have specifically put the community at risk. That's capitalism in a nutshell. He's smart to have a rabbit monopoly and the community will stick together for shared safety. That's fucking great. How much smarter and better would it be too be willing to sell (not give away, just sell) live rabbits? Then they can share the risk and the rewards, but no, this guy is like some evil corporation in a nutshell, making his countrymen protect him while he flaunts his relative wealth outside the walls. I don't know Butler's writing that well, maybe this was a very very subtle argument for anarchism (the good kind) and collective action, but if it was, it was very very very subtle.

I don't think the book is realistic about how things will go down. I think it's defeatist. It's message is defeatist. It's like propaganda for defeatism. But people in the US have engaged in direct class warfare before and they will again. Look at the giant protests in LA earlier this year. We won't let this happen.

It's definitely a worst-case scenario, but unlike, say, The Handmaid's Tale it doesn't inspire action. It just articulates fear and powerlessness. I don't recommend it. I don't know what good comes out of reading it.