The Color Master

When I swoop down the library aisle to claim my held books, rarely am I caught by any of the books on display, but today Aimee Bender’s name glanced off my eye and I grabbed it with a smile. Bender’s words are always a playful delight, and her latest collection of short stories contains some delicious morsels. While not as strong as previous collections, the stories are whimsical, mysterious, cracked and entertaining. Of the stories, Wordkeepers and The Color Master were tops in my book.
Wordkeepers details the relationship between neighbors trying not to get into a relationship, where the woman rails against his inability to remember words, tiny attention span made worse by incessant checking of phone, texting. He forgets words like throat, scale. His student explains she had a problem with her breathing things (lungs) and the doctor gave her drugs she calls antirobotics. “I’d be irritated, except as soon as they leave I have a thing I am planning to do and I walk into the center of the room to do it and whatever it was flies away. Half my days I find myself standing in the center of rooms.”
The Color Master is a bit dreamier/fiercer, a tale of village artisans who make custom clothing for royalty, matching the color of the duke’s shoes to the rocks in his land, making cloth the color of the moon, the sun, the sky. Based on the early French tale, Donkeyskin.

The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class

A serendipitous outing at the California Historical Society put me onto MacCannell, after I heard his lecture on how San Francisco has become stale as it rigidly defends its tourist front, how the best parts of the city are those you stumble upon, like the Poem House, or murals in the Mission, or great street art. After some searching, I also found him mentioned in the excellent Reclaiming San Francisco as one of the merry pranksters that took visitors on an un-tour of the city, unleashing them on the casting pools in Golden Gate park to imagine what they were. Some bits I learned from the lecture: the “Mish” dialect in the Mission from the Irish immigrants that was very similar to Brooklynese, the “embalmed palm” bragged on by the Las Vegas architect who stressed palm trees then dunked their root balls into epoxy, the plant sucks the epoxy to its very tips and embalms itself. Also the nature of transitory art, street art that is no longer there, but you can take a visitor to the spot and tell the story of what was, and everyone leaves with a full belly of stories and experiences, chronotopic attraction.
The book is at times painfully packed with everything you’d expect from a PhD dissertation (“The more I examined my data, the more inescapable became my conclusion that tourist attractions are an unplanned typology of structure that provides direct access to the modern consciousness or “world view,” that tourist attractions are precisely analogous to the religious symbolism of primitive peoples”). He argues that tourism is a useful lens through which to understand modernity, noting the transition from valuing the fruits of our labor by the time it takes to produce something to valuing the experience of the product more highly, searching for meaning in life through experiences yet surrounded by the clutter of souvenirs that drive deeper appreciation for the experience. He analyzes the idea of tourism through perspectives of Marxism, semiotics, ethnomethodology and structuralism, and the net result is a deeply thought-out, analytical social criticism of tourism. Below are some tangled quotes and thoughts that struck me.

Cultural productions are powerful agents in defining the scope, force and direction of a civilization. It is only in the cultural experience that the data are organized to generate specific feelings and beliefs. Cultural experiences, then, are the opposite of scientific experiments – opposite in the sense of being mirror images of each other. Scientific experiments are designed to control bias, especially that produced by human beings, out of the result, but cultural experiences are designed to build it in. The attitudes, beliefs, opinions and values studied by sociologists are the residues of cultural experiences, separated from their original contexts and decaying in the minds of individuals. p29

He quotes Max Weber, but I’ve added emphasis where my skin crawls, p33:

No one knows yet who will inhabit this shell [of industrial capitalism] in the future: whether at the end of its prodigious development there will be new prophets or a vigorous renaissance of all thoughts and ideals or whether finally, if none of this occurs, mechanism will produce only petrification hidden under a kind of anxious importance. According to this hypothesis, the prediction will become a reality for the last men of this particular development of culture. Specialists without spirit, libertines without heart, this nothingness imagines itself to be elevated to a level of humanity never before attained.

MacCannell notes the removal of leisure and culture from everyday life and working life, producing “the central crisis of industrial society,” then quotes Edward Sapir (my emphasis, p35):

The great cultural fallacy of industrialism, as developed up to the present time, is that in harnessing machines to our uses it has not known how to avoid the harnessing the majority of mankind to its machines. The telephone girl who lends her capacities, during the greater part of the living day, to the manipulation of a technical routine that has an eventually high efficient value but that answers to no spiritual needs of her own is an appalling sacrifice to civilization. As a solution to the problem of culture she is a failure – the more dismal the greater her natural endowment.

There is an interesting correlation between the removal of culture from work and the huge interest in tourists to see people at work, in authentic situations that are removed from their own daily experience. While the author jokes with a shoeshine man at O’Hare, a mother and son pull up within earshot while the mother points out “Look, he’s working.” Tours of factories, engine rooms, you get the feeling that you are backstage, but in reality you are in a sanitized version of backstage made suitable for the public.

The tourist has no difficulty deciding the sights he ought to see. His only problem is getting around to all of them. Even under conditions where there is no end of things to see, some mysterious institutional force operates on the totality in advance of the arrival of tourists, separating out the specific sights which are the attractions. In the Louvre, for example, the attraction is the Mona Lisa. The rest is undifferentiated art in the abstract. Moderns somehow know what the important attractions are, even in remote places. This miracle of consensus that transcends national boundaries rests on an elaborate set of institutional mechanisms, a twofold process of sight sacralization that is met with a corresponding ritual attitude on the part of the tourists. p 42

…resulting itineraries rarely penetrate lovingly into the precious details of a society…, peeling back layer after layer of local historical, cultural and social facts, although this is the ideal of a certain type of snobbish tourism. Such potential exists in the structure of the tour, but it goes for the most part untapped. Attractions are usually organized more on the model of the filing system of a disinterested observer… the tourist world is complete in its way, but constructed after the fashion of all worlds that are filled with people who are just passing through and know it. p 51

I was unaware of the insanity that happened in 1911 when the last surviving member of a California Indian tribe was brought to live out the remainder of his life in a University of California museum. Ishi, the Indian, excited such interest of people wanting to shake the hand of the last wild man in America, that the museum suggested putting Ishi in an exhibition case during visiting hours to protect him from the crowd.

In highly developed tourist settings such as San Francisco and Switzerland, every detail of touristic experience can take on a showy, back-region aspect, at least for fleeting moments. Tourists enter tourist areas precisely because their experiences there will not, for them, be routine. The local people in the places they visit, by contrast, have long discounted the presence of tourists and go about their business as usual, even their tourist business, as best they can, treating tourists as a part of the regional scenery… In the give-and-take of urban street life in tourist areas, the question of who is watching whom and who is responding to whom can be as complex as it is in the give-and-take between ethnographers and their respondents. p106

This quote struck me as apt, considering what is happening to San Francisco, as the quirky parts of the city are pushed out by high rents. (With regards to London building high-rise hotels to accommodate the millions of tourists): “The irony is, they are destroying the very character and scale of the city their customers are coming to see.” (p 126).
His final paragraph of the 1998 epilogue is worth quoting in full:

It is important to recall that most things that are now attractions did not start out that way. In San Francisco, there was a time when Mission Dolores was just a mission, when Fisherman’s Wharf was just a fisherman’s wharf, when Chinatown was just a neighborhood settled by Chinese. What transformed these places into the centerpieces of the enormous tourist industry of the City of San Francisco? In the beginning it was not hype. The key I have been suggesting is that the place became something more than a spatial coordinate, something more than a spot of protected intimacy for like-minded individuals. It became, in addition, the locus of a human relationship between un-like-minded individuals, the locus of an urgent desire to share – an intimate connection between one stranger and another, or one generation to another, through the local object. It is the “you have got to see this,” or “taste this,” or “feel this” that is the originary moment in the touristic relation, which is also the basis for a certain kind of human solidarity. And it is precisely this moment that has become depersonalized and automated in commercialized attractions – the reason they are at once both powerful and dead. But “the touristic” is always being displaced into new things as cause, source and potential. All that is required is a simultaneous caring and concern for another person and for an object that is honored and shared but never fully possessed.

Tenth of December

The kind of writing that makes your heart hurt, it’s so good. These are short stories that your breath catches on, forcing you to close the book after each one is consumed, to digest it properly, to let the karate kick to your head subside enough to allow full appreciation of the next installment. The Semplica Girl Diaries was the story that hurt the most, taunting me with the same idiocy I put into my own journals (replacing “is” with “=”, inane to-do lists, detailed litany of boring day), exposing weaknesses as something to face up to. All the stories contain just the right mix of poignancy, mundane, and heroic with tinge of loser.
* Victory Lap – popular teen abducted by creepy guy who dons a neon vest, conferring “officialness” to him, which gets him in the door. Next door neighbor sees the scuffle, runs over and clobbers creep with a huge crystal (his dad gave detailed instructions for placing crystal in the backyard, to earn “points” which can be redeemed for a few minutes of TV time or a handful of healthy snack).
* Sticks – 2 paragraph story that conveys the emotional sting of family; dad builds a pole structure that gets decorated for Christmas, 4th of July, Halloween. “The pole was Dad’s one concession to glee. We were allowed a single Crayola from the box at a time. He hovered over us as we poured ketchup, saying, Good enough good enough good enough.” Decorates pole to commemorate wife after her death. Eventually, he’s gone, the new owners leave the pole by the road on garbage day.
* Puppy – two families collide, the perfect family meeting imperfect over a puppy transaction. Imperfect mom has chained her son to the tree so he won’t hurt himself, perfect mom is aghast and calls child protective services.
* Escape from Spiderhead – prisoners in an experimental drug trial, testing Verbaluce, Vivistif, Darkenfloxx, in an effort to create a drug that allows people who cannot love to love, and those who love too much to love the perfect amount without getting hurt. Jeff chooses to Darkenfloxx his way to death to avoid hurting anyone else.
* Exhortation – a hilarious, long-winded, personal memo to the team about performance stats. Reminds me that Saunders worked for a long time doing technical writing, so was probably exposed to a fair bit of these types of communiques.
* Al Roosten – petulant older businessman whose store is failing, who indulges in fantasies about friendship with the more popular Larry. Begins with a prance down the runway during a lunchtime auction of Local Celebrities, Al gets no hoots or hollers but Larry gets plenty of applause. Al kicks Larry’s wallet and keys under the risers as he gets dressed, feels bad about it but does nothing. “The man gave Roosten a weak smile, and Roosten gave the man a weak smile back.”
* Semplica Girl Diaries – a financially struggling family splurges on new landscaping (with the fad of stringing up girls in white tunics from impoverished countries), daughter Eva sets the girls free but becomes despondent when the landscaping company insists that they pay ~$8k for the missing girls. Intimate portrait of daily challenges of raising a family.
* Home – a veteran returns home to find his mom getting evicted, neither welcome at sister’s fancy house, no one allowing him to see his ex-wife and children.
* My Chivalric Fiasco – after witnessing a coworker assaulted by the boss, both the coworker and he are bribed by the boss with money and promotions. Unfortunately, the promotion is a medicated role, drugged to help improv lines. Under the drugs, the narrator can’t contain his disgust at the act he witnessed, and outs the boss and coworker, losing his job.
* Tenth of December – boy questing for adventure and rescue discovers a cancer-riddled man shedding his coat on a freezing day as he plans his suicide, the boy attempts to bring it to him but falls through the ice, the old man rescues the boy, dresses him in his pajamas, sends him walking home. The boy sends his mom back for the man, both ending up warm and rescued.

The Soul of a New Machine

A guy gets unlimited access to the geek squad putting together Data General’s first 32 bit computer in the late 1970s, cobbles together an in-depth report of the drama, the glory, the fights, the jokes that swirl around the machine’s creation. Methinks Kidder places himself on stage a bit too much, instead of reporting from the shadowy wings. Do we really need to know that the author was falling asleep in West’s guest room late one night only to hear the soft strains of a folk song accompanied by a guitar as West noodled away in the living room? Kidder frequently includes his own dialogue in the text, to show us how pithy, witty, and clever his questions and comments are. Perhaps my biggest beef with the book is the hook placed in the opening chapter, the way West is described as a mysterious man on board a yachting expedition that met a storm, the author leads you to think something big/dramatic/violent/chaotic will happen to West. This layer of tension spools throughout the chapters, West always one conversation away from walking away from the project to go make music somewhere. Instead, West marshals the team to create this groundbreaking machine, and then accepts a job in BizDev wearing a suit, joining the executives upstairs. Disappointing. Kidder’s a decent writer, but wow too much technical detail about the inner buildings of an early computer. He does capture the spirit of the place and time, with engineers working grueling hours to accomplish an impossible deadline, working for pride instead of money. In the end, Kidder works up the nerve to tell West “it’s just a computer, it’s really just a small thing in the world.” Through all the stress and strain of my career I’ve been cheered by the remark that “we’re not saving lives here,” a close echo to this sentiment.

Big Machine

Feral cats gnawing away at a discarded body of a junkie before he manages to run away. Igniting plumes of gas underground that are supposed “Angels.” The faux-town of Garland nestled near Oakland and Berkeley, receiving the brunt of the home grown terror attacks. A group of leftover citizens recruited to research at the Library in Vermont, searching for clues of the Voice. A mangled and twisted and meandering story that needed to be put down, in order to absorb the historical bits about the cult upbringing with the Washerwomen, the hotel room torture, the Iowa drug deal gone bad (insert feral cats disposing of the dumped remains in the basement). Actually pretty interesting stuff about the 70s cult of the Washerwomen, the mass murder that takes place as the police attempt to rescue the children.
Sort of a dreary modernistic novel, decent writing, but no phrases to make the heart swoon.
*****
Mentioned by Maggie

Among Others

It’s embarrassing how obviously a book can pander to Readers, yet I fell for it, stunned by the narrator’s obsessive devotion to downing several books a week/day. Devoured in an afternoon of sun-dappled reading time, this one went conveyor-belt style into my gullet, I could not stop. I almost wish I were a teenage girl again, so much great reading material abounds! Main character is Mori (Morwenna), recovering from an accident that killed her twin sister Mor, caused by her mother attempting to acquire more witchy powers. Mori runs away from witchy mother, limps towards the sanctuary her unknown father provides from his wealthy country manor (where we find out he is controlled by his three witchy sisters).
Yes, there are many fairies and fantasy elements and geeking out about various scifi books that I haven’t read. But the passion, the gasping for more reading, was familiar to me, especially as Mori (thinks she) conjures up a group of people suitable to befriend, when she’s actually just stumbling onto an existing scifi book club. She is hungry for intellectual conversation, and she finds her people in the town library near her posh boarding school.
Also poignant are the realizations that her old friends are now simply people “she knows,” not friends, since there is no shared experience and they don’t have much in common.
Great pacing through the book, until the very end, perhaps as commentary on the author’s part, that these types of books generally devote a long ramp of build up only to do major end-battles in a few pages. Despite the crazy end-battle, her final entry is a reflection on how life will go on, and last sentence is a book review (“Gate of Ivrel turns out to be really brill”). Do I now dare to venture into her bibliography???
****
Reco’d by Maggie