Archive for the 'Politics' Category

Tom Connor’s Gift

Tom Connor’s Gift
David Allan Cates
Bangtail Press 2014

Reviewed by Bob Wake

The time frame of David Allan Cates’s bravura new novel, Tom Connor’s Gift, covers roughly three weeks that Janine McCarthy spends alone in a Montana cabin both evading and confronting her grief over her husband Mark’s recent cancer death. Janine, a 49-year-old doctor, is in a bad way, not even certain she wants to join her two grown children for Thanksgiving back at their family farm outside of Madison, Wisconsin. She’s soon drinking more than she should. Smoking cigarettes. Neglecting her appearance. The cluttered cabin begins to smell bad from piled garbage. She can’t muster the energy to name the small dog she’s acquired, simply christening him “Puppy.” Cates fashions a rich and elaborate narrative by recognizing that we are never really “alone” with grief. Memories loom large and become persistent companions. Reality takes on the heightened near-mystical quality of a waking dream.

Consider, for instance, Janine’s standoff with a bear snooping and foraging ever closer to the cabin:

I sit up in bed and turn my feet onto the floor and struggle with my boots. I suddenly remember the terrible, slow breathing of the bear through the door and remember shooting the pepper spray and it feels as if it were a dream. Did I really do that? Did I really have a bear right outside the door and still dare to open the door? Did I spray into the wind?

After all, we experienced the bear at the door too—at least we read about the bear in Janine’s own telling—and the pepper spray blowing back into Janine’s face causing acute distress to her eyes and throat. Pretty much, we’re convinced. But other times, Janine imagines seeing the bear outside in the shadows. On another occasion, the bear’s face appears at the cabin window and morphs into the smiling face of her dead husband. Despite her steely ER-tested nerves, Janine warily muses: “Do dream memories and other memories get stored in the same place? And if you forget which memory is a dream and which is a waking event, does that mean you’re insane?”

Deeply entwined with Janine’s story is the parallel narrative of the novel’s eponymous gift-giver, Tom Connor. They were briefly lovers when Janine was sixteen and Tom was twenty. Sorted into stacks on a table in the cabin are nearly one hundred and fifty letters she subsequently received from Connor—freelance journalist, frustrated novelist, drunkard—through the years. Janine doesn’t merely share many of Connor’s vivid letters with us, she struggles to contextualize them for us and for herself. The violence that Tom Connor is witness to in 1980s Central America—era of the CIA-funded Contras and the civil wars in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua—is unflinchingly recounted. (Cates’s work has never shied away from articulating the brutality at the heart of so much U.S. history, most notably in his powerful 2008 novel on the subject of slavery, Freeman Walker.)

David Allan Cates. Photo: Bangtail Press.

Cates is a seasoned storyteller—this is his fifth novel—and Tom Connor’s Gift is awash in stories that are by turns raucous, hair-raising, and heartfelt. The author orchestrates a series of climactic chapters that range across memory and time with breathless page-turning dramatic force. While Cates has spoken of his new novel as completing a “homecoming trilogy” begun with his well-received 1992 debut Hunger in America and 2012’s award-winning Ben Armstrong’s Strange Trip Home, each of these novels can be experienced on their own as satisfying individual works. Taken together, however, they represent a unique and eye-opening expression of epic American themes encompassing landscape and desire, love and loss, social justice and historical accountability.

Ashes and Diamonds

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1997 Northwestern Univ. Press edition of Ashes and Diamonds.

The 1948 Polish novel Ashes and Diamonds by Jerzy Andrzejewski (1909-1983) is probably less appreciated today as a literary work in its own right than as the basis for Andrzej Wajda’s 1958 film adaptation. The wildly entertaining movie, designated an “Essential Art House” choice in Criterion’s DVD catalog, owes more to Orson Welles’s baroque cinematic influence than Andrzejewski’s blend of socialist realism and tragic irony. Both novel and film are compact (239 pgs./103 mins.), while at the same time reflecting a panoramic near-epic cross-section of Poland’s clashing societal and political factions at the close of the Second World War. Neither the novel nor the film have escaped criticism over the years, although for different reasons.

Poet Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), who defected from Communist Poland in 1951, wrote a scathing smackdown of his former friend Jerzy Andrzejewski in The Captive Mind (1953), the Nobel Prize-winning poet’s classic study of writers and intellectuals “adapting” themselves to totalitarian regimes. Milosz—who refers to Andrzejewski pseudonymously as “Alpha, the Moralist”—is especially tough on what he sees as pulled-punches in Ashes and Diamonds (discussed at length in The Captive Mind without mentioning the novel’s title). According to Milosz, the novelist was nicknamed “the respectable prostitute” by fellow-writers who saw Andrzejewski as a Stalinist suck-up.

ashes_diamonds_fireworks

Zbigniew Cybulski in Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

Film director Andrzej Wajda, in a fascinating interview included on the Ashes and Diamonds Criterion DVD, talks candidly of having initially refused to read the novel because of its state-sanctioned popularity in the 1950s. In the notes to a 2007 translation of Andrzejewski’s earlier novel, Holy Week, commentator Oscar Swan writes: “The year 1954 found Andrzejewski politically sanitizing a new edition of Ashes and Diamonds, which had become required reading in the schools.”

1980 Penguin paperback edition of Ashes and Diamonds.

1980 Penguin paperback edition of Ashes and Diamonds.

German writer Heinrich Böll (1917-1985), like Milosz a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is altogether kinder to Ashes and Diamonds in his introduction written for the 1980 Penguin “Writers from the Other Europe” paperback edition of the novel, and reprinted in the 1997 Northwestern University Press edition. Almost as an aside, Böll notes that “the reader feels” that Andrzejewski “has a sense of kinship” with the novel’s “young Socialist and Communist functionaries.”

While both the Penguin and NUP editions of Ashes and Diamonds use D. J. Walsh’s 1962 British translation (with its battle-hardened Polish adults and nihilistic teenagers alike saying “cheerio” and “bloke” and “rotter” to one another), only the NUP edition includes five pages of previously deleted text. No explanation is given as to whether this was perhaps material removed by censors or, more likely, added in later to placate censors (possibly for the 1954 “sanitized” edition). A long speech by Stefan Szczuka, the sympathetically portrayed Communist Party official marked for assassination by the Polish underground, goes on and on for a mind-numbing two full pages of Soviet-era boilerplate:

For only those truly die who believe in isolation or who serve false truths which are illusory and incompatible with the one great truth of our time. Future generations will only despise them and will blame them or condemn them to oblivion. Those people, however, who have understood the forces of history and who have been in solidarity with their comrades, will discover in the future the praise of soldiers fighting for humanity, for one’s own fatherland and for mankind, for the world order.

Wajda sharpened the book’s edges by infusing the film with the Catholic iconography of Polish nationalism and by emphasizing the charged performance of Zbigniew Cybulski as the Home Army resistance fighter tasked with assassinating Szczuka. The combined effect was a cleverly coded rebuke to the postwar Soviet control of the country. Although the movie’s striking visual metaphors have sometimes been criticized as heavy-handed, the stylistic strategy clearly succeeded in Wajda’s intended aim of circumventing Communist Party censorship.

Medium Cool

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 12.39.09 AM

I just posted a new short story of mine, “Recall,” to the website Medium. What I love about the site is the elegant simplicity of the page design, which makes for one of the very best environments I’ve seen for digital reading. The brainchild of Twitter’s co-founder, Evan Williams, Medium wants to do for long-form work what Twitter has done for focused brevity. Techcrunch.com has an excellent write-up on Medium from last fall.

[Update: Also worth checking out is David Carr’s May 25, 2014 New York Times column: “A Platform and Blogging Tool, Medium Charms Writers.”]

Spoke

Spoke
Coleman
Little Creek Press 2013

Reviewed by Bob Wake

SpokeCoverIn 1959, in the Oklahoma City suburb of Warr Acres, Rosalyn Coleman Gilchrist, a married mother with three young sons, suffered third-degree burns over 90% of her body from what was either a bathroom dress-cleaning incident with a can of gasoline gone tragically awry or else a failed attempt at suicidal self-immolation. Rosalyn’s 10-year-old son, Joe Gilchrist (who would later as an adult change his name legally to Coleman and come to write Spoke, the memoir under review), ran outdoors to aim the garden hose ineffectually at the closed bathroom window like a traumatized Peanuts character. Inside the house his father and older brother took the necessary steps to break through the bathroom door and wrap Rosalyn in blankets and douse the flames.

After months of painful reconstructive surgery (“She lost her ears, her nose, her eyelids, and most of her fingers. Her breasts. Her lips. Part of her tongue”), Rosalyn returned home to an initially supportive community. However, it wasn’t long before a local reverend asked that Rosalyn not attend Sunday services because her scarred appearance was unnerving to the congregation.

During ongoing Oklahoma City hospital visits for treatment of her burn wounds, Rosalyn found solace through growing friendships with the African American nursing staff. Soon she was a welcome congregant of black church services at Calvary Baptist Church. She joined the NAACP and became a Youth Council volunteer, further alienating her from the all-white Warr Acres suburban community.

The Oklahoma City NAACP Youth Council was the famed activist organization behind the 1958 Katz Drug Store lunch-counter sit-ins that ended the chain store’s discriminatory lunch-counter policy throughout the South. By the time Rosalyn joined the organization in the early 60s, they were busier than ever staging sit-ins, demonstrations and rallies in support of civil rights. When Rosalyn divorced her husband and put their house up for sale to a black family, a cabal of outraged Warr Acres elders—including the aforementioned local reverend, the chief of police, and Rosalyn’s ex-husband—successfully conspired to have her committed to the state mental hospital.

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Coleman

Coleman eventually helped obtain his mother’s release from her illegal institutionalization, but not before moving out on his own, attending Cornell University, and becoming a campus Vietnam War draft resister. He gained wider notoriety when—inspired by the personal mentorship of radical Catholic antiwar priest Daniel Berrigan—he was arrested in 1970 along with seven others for breaking into the Federal Building in Rochester, New York and shredding Selective Service records.

The locks on the office doors were simple to break. Within minutes each team was at work. The six Rochester draft boards were located in an adjoining series of suites in the middle of the building’s second floor. There we labored all night—prying open locked desks and file cabinets with crowbars, disgorging an avalanche of draft records, and then feeding them handful by handful into one of two paper shredders we’d brought with us. The shredders were noisy, but this didn’t worry us. We were in the middle of the building on the second floor, and it was late night on a lazy holiday weekend. Downtown Rochester was a ghost town. There was nothing to worry about.

Spoke is a bracing, full-immersion memoir about political activism in the 1960s that is unlike any memoir of the era you are ever likely to read. And it is as a testament to the indomitable spirit of his mother that Coleman’s memoir especially distinguishes itself. As he speaks with those who knew her during times when she was absent from his life, we share in his miraculous discovery of her kindnesses and near-mystical calm in the midst of personal anguish and adversity. She will inspire readers as surely as she inspired her son to strive always to do the right thing when called upon to take a stand.

Cambridge, Wisconsin 4/3/11

Sly’s WTDY interview with Ian Murphy

Longtime and often controversial Madison radio personality John “Sly” Sylvester interviewed Ian “Fake David Koch” Murphy on WTDY Friday morning. Murphy has been in Madison for the last week basking in a warm civic welcome for his role in unmasking Governor Scott Walker’s alarmingly chummy ties to the darkest of American corporate interests. We’ve made more than half a dozen family outings to the Capitol in recent weeks. The crowds and the spirit of collective resolve have been life-changing for all of us. In our peregrinations among seas of galvanized protesters we’ve stumbled into meeting both Sly and Murphy on separate occasions. Murphy in a packed Starbucks on the Square last Saturday, and then Sly Thursday afternoon on the Capitol steps when we pulled Augie from Cambridge Middle School at noontime and drove into the city. (Sly that evening was interviewed on Fox’s “O’Reilly Factor” and predicted: “Walker’s done.”) Our photo ops below.

Family photo op with Ian Murphy at Madison’s Starbucks on the Square 3/5/11.

Family photo op with WTDY’s Sly on the steps of the Capitol 3/10/11.

Madison 3/10/11


(Photo: Coffee Spew)

Madison 3/5/11

Firefighters begin march down State Street after Saturday afternoon’s labor rally at the Capitol. At the front is Mahlon Mitchell, 13-year veteran with the Madison Fire Department and current president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin. Directly behind Mitchell, Local 311 Pipes & Drums. (Photo: Coffee Spew)

Madison 3/4/11

(Photo: Coffee Spew)

Augie’s Letter to the Cambridge News

The Cambridge News, March 3, 2011 / Letters to the Editor

Dear editor,

I am an eighth-grader at Nikolay Middle School. These past two weeks my view of our administration and teachers has lessened significantly. I imagine you have figured out that I am talking about the local reaction to the protests that are occurring at our State Capitol regarding Governor Scott Walker’s heinous bill attacking unions and collective bargaining.

Our teacher’s union in Cambridge decided that it was best for all of us if they stayed here in our schools. I have talked to some of my teachers and they have told me that the reason they made this decision is because they respect and like the Cambridge administration and wanted to stay here and teach; they told me it was for our education. Well let me tell you, the administration is going to be affected by this bill just like the rest of us. The school administration should be up at the Capitol protesting right along next to our teachers.

On Friday, Feb. 19, I went to school, begrudgingly, as I would’ve much rather been at the Capitol along with the rest of the state. Shortly before lunch it was announced on the loudspeaker that some students at Nikolay Middle School were planning a walkout and that it would not be a good choice. With our own principal away at a conference, we were told, “the issue that has arisen is Madison’s problem, not Cambridge’s,” and “let the adults handle this adult problem.”

I was fuming by the end of this.

We were also told that a “discussion forum” would be held during the second half of our lunch period. I was prepared to express my views in a respectful way, of course, because I respect my peers and authority figures. But we received something much less inclusive than a discussion forum. We instead received a lecture in which we were talked down to and threatened with suspension and even expulsion.

Students are opinionated and engaged. We know what’s happening, so why not encourage us to examine current issues and experience education in the world beyond the classroom?

August McGinnity-Wake


Mudstone

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