Read a Banned Book Today

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Books speak quietly. They’re full of ideas-and stories representing concepts that can’t seem to be transmitted any other way, except perhaps in pictures. But throughout history, books have been banned.

Why?

Societies put limits on the behavior of their people, for one thing. This is often necessary for a society to function. The rub is when societies become permeated with lies, lies that have nothing to do with a society’s well-being as much as to empower certain persons.

For another, the history of societies is often written in lies that favor one group of people over another. History, it seems, is always written by the winners of wars, not the losers, and these histories are often constituted through lies, lies that distort the reality of those societies.

Books, particularly the ones written as fiction, are the antidotes to society’s lies and false justifications, and that makes them a danger to the powerful. So books properly written can challenge a reader’s thinking, about the makeup of the reader’s world. This is why, in the ‘sixties, when so-called radicals were burning campus buildings, author James Mitchener begged them , PLEASE! don’t burn the libraries.

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You can stand on a street corner and proclaim your angst. You can rant on TV, but  books are much more powerful statements than any such posturing. If, in the future, you come to find a book that’s ever been banned, pick it up, take it home. Read it. It will change the way you see the world.

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll currently find some real bargains on our books.  And there’s a gridleyfires Facebook page, too, if you can find it.

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Fiction as Reality That Makes Sense

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We writers know we have to compete in a changing market, and with the prominence of MFA program graduates, plus the added complication of self-pub writers, it’s easy to get lost in the crowd. And with the digital revolution – e-books, etc. – the publishing industry is twisting in the wind.

In the past year, too, I’ve discovered that fiction (most of what I write) is losing readers to non-fiction. There are apparently a host of reasons for that, which I won’t try to enumerate here, but this does add to the challenge of becoming a financially successful fiction writer (caveat: most writers, including myself, are virtually compelled by our natures to write; thus the money issue is only the capstone to writing as hobby/craft/profession).

What are we fiction writers to make of this drift to non-fiction? Certainly, we can encourage teachers, writing facilitators, professors, and others to teach the values of fiction to the reading public. And of course, to write the best fiction we can, to keep learning about the craft of writing. The best fiction, it’s been said is more real than reality; it helps reality make sense.

Visit my website here. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me — and possibly to you.

Real Life and Writing

This morning I posted a whine on Facebook – – all the things I need to do around the house, what with my wife suffering cancer, my aching, cartilage-less left knee – – and oh yeah, the impact of all this on my writing. As I re-considered that post while eating breakfast, I had to ask myself: Why do you feel the need to complain? Isn’t that selfish? Don’t you still carve out a couple of hours a day to write, to market your writing? Well, yes. Yes, I do. I’ve begun to complain; it’s a habit and not a good one. Yes, it is selfish, wishing I had more time to my personal devices. And yes, I’m still writing, and, I think, writing well.

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We writers tend to be a solitary lot. But why do we loners seek out the muses that traffic in fiction’s alternate realities in the view-from-afar of memoir, of essay, of journalism and history?

Largely, I think,we’re loners and we write because we’re perfectionists, idealists, those who wish the world to be other than it is. Certainly, this is the seed that engenders in us the exaggerated, otherwise worlds of fiction, the broad brush view of life that comes to nonfiction writers. But this desire for something more, something better, some greater sense of understanding, doesn’t come to those for whom life is easy; it comes to those who have slipped and fallen, to those who have suffered a few slaps in the face from violated friendships, from scholarly failures, from career and family disappointments – from the abyssal pool of slights and lack in an imperfect world.

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The muses are the personifications of the various arenas of knowledge and artistic expression, there to reveal themselves to a more-than-slightly off-center world. So we writers, whatever our personal damage, choose to have one foot in a world that seeks to be better, the other foot in the clear pool of personified art, of knowledge. As such, we’re the bridges between those two universes. So what? you say? That’s just philosophical meandering? Not if you embrace the slights and slaps you suffer, ground yourself in them. That secure foothold in this world’s eddies will allow you a clearer picture of what your muses have to offer you and the world.

 

 

Visit my website here, where you’ll have an opportunity to download an audio eversion of my latest, Sam’s Place, as well as select book review podcasts. Then there’s my FB Fan Page here. On both you’ll find more on ideas and events that matter to me – and possibly to you.

The Perilous Lack of Reality in Virtual Life

I, like most of us, have begun to think seriously of late about various socio-political things facing us everyday (trust me – this will have to do with my usual subject matter of media, technology, creativity, etc.), particularly the gun-realted tragedies of the past few years, but also related subjects such as an obsession with militias, tri-cornered hats, “don’t-tread-on-me,” Tea Parties and no taxation, and the accompanying romancing of small government. But to all this I want to add other social obsessions: video games,the Internet in general, the postmodern spectacles of pop music and big-time sports. What do all these have in common? Let’s take a look. – – (NOTE: this is a long post, so if you want to get down to business, scroll to the end of the post.)

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  • Gun crimes until recent years have been largely (and sadly) black on black, in inner cities neighborhoods that are predominantly black, Hispanic, and Asian. So why do whites in predominantly white neighborhoods feel threatened? Why do some feel the need for assault rifles, pistols, even more dangerous weapons? Sure, racism and its correlate, fear of what you don’t understand, figures prominently into this. But to my mind, the culprit is largely TV. With the proliferation of of TV networks and channels, each one has to shout louder than the rest to gain your attention to their versions of the news – and to their sponsorships. Certainly FOX is the biggest miscreant in this, but they aren’t alone by any means. There seems to be an element of attention to perceived danger that governs over the reality of relative peacefulness in our nationwide society. I have a cousin who watches FOX all day long, and when I talk to her, the conversation quickly grows toxic a la “the world’s going to hell in a hand basket.” She – and many others, I fear – are blind to optimism, to the idea that whatever problems are out there have solutions – and that some may involve her/their participation. I could give many more examples, but the idea here is that we tend these days to surrender the perceivable reality out there to the virtual, “reality-based” one TV dishes.

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  • The grandest and most erroneous political phenomenon of recent years is the Tea Party, and I won’t dwell on people who advocate against their own real interests. But before the TPs formed, we were pummeled by Ronald Reagan with “government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.” Newt Gingrich espoused a hue and cry for no new taxes during his time as House Speaker, an idea that still resonates with much of the public despite a Federal budget broken by adventurous spending on several large-ticket unfunded mandates. Any household checkbook keeper will tell you that spending more without more income is dangerous. Of course, this doesn’t translate purely at the macro-economic level. Keynesian economics will tell any high school student that in bleak economic times, when the public isn’t buying and business isn’t hiring or producing, government just might have to deficit-spend to pull us out of our financial doldrums. And lest I be accused of pounding only on Republicans, let me vent my spleen briefly on the current “god”of the Democrats, Bill Clinton. In order not to be a do-nothing president with a Congress hard-set against him, he compromised his ideas to death in order to have his “grand bargains.” On Education? Clinton bowed to the large corporations who continue to donate massive amounts of money to the large and growing universities for research that benefitted largely those corporations. Universities should be job factories, Clinton proclaimed, and the idea of teaching young minds to think lucidly (until recently the primary purpose of higher education) was pushed to the back bench in order to serve corporate needs. And Obama is taking the same posture. But what does this have to do with virtuality? Politics has become a virtual world; whether it’s the TPs or Joe Lunch Bucket who is out of a job, or the emerging proliferation of minority perspectives that are finally getting their day in the sun, politics preaches a zero-sum game, rarely trafficking in solutions to problems or a calming of social angst. Like the TV moguls, politicians pummel us with sound bites and speeches void of fact-based rationales. That they appeal mostly to our emotions – and not our reason – is a trait of this emerging virtual word as it spills into the real one we live and breathe in.

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  • Anyone who reads even a portion of this post will see it in various “places” on the Internet. The Internet has become a social and political phenomenon that is with us for the long haul, and that’s probably a good thing in the overall sense. Still, it does have its problems. Journalistic in-depth reportage, the fifth estate, served us well for years as a tool for informing us  of issues foreign and domestic, but it’s now quickly being replaced with blogger posts (like mine here, I suppose), and the tendency there is not to separate oneself from the fray in order to construct a relatively unbiased, rational perspective on our changing world. E-mail, even games, can be ways to communicate regularly with those we hold dear, with those we wish to get to know better, but the nuances of those media (I’ll return to nuance a bit later) forestall the human intimacy we need, emotional, even biological. And these games, and the growing number of virtual worlds – – my wife played a game called Glitch for a couple of years. In Glitch, you have an avatar (a virtual person) living in a neighborhood of your choosing within the world of Ur. During those two years, she experienced, virtually the issues of the real world: making money, buying clothes, furniture, a home, etc., going to parties and general socializing. But there was also robbery, animal abuse, and a number of other community problems the players had to contend with on a regular basis. Sounds pretty cool doesn’t it?  But the game ended some months ago (The developers “Devs” weren’t able to keep this inventive game going financially). The night the game ended I accompanied my wife at the computer, reading posts by the players, as the game was slowly shut down. For weeks she was morose over the loss of something that had only a tenuous grasp of living, breathing reality, and I can’t blame here, really; the game had mimicked real life to such a degree that the shut-down seemed barely short of an apocalypse.  And then there are the kid games: action games, war games, all sorts of games out there, and kids play them constantly. Many games are sanctioned by the military (this isn’t my paranoia -it’s real) in order to de facto train kids to military service in a country that remains void of a military draft. Some games are extremely violent, others not so much. But if my wife cried over the loss of Glitch, is it too great a leap to think that kids might allow virtuality to confuse their corporeal reality?
  • Any educator, even in the lower levels of K-12 will tell you it’s hard to gain kid’s interest on mundane subjects such as history, geography, math, English, without appealing to any sensationalistic aspect that might be wallowing about on the surface of those subjects. Take this poll: Kids, do you want to be a physicist? An engineer? A schoolteacher? A plumber? A carpenter? Or would you like to be a CIA agent? A professional athlete? A rock star? I’d be surprised if those first five occupations win out over the latter ones. Why? Media has glamorized pop music, rock stars, athletes and governmental intrigues to the point of virtuality. Would it be possible to do the same for the more mundane occupations? I would hope so, but I doubt it.

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So what’s point here? It’s that there’s no ethical basis inherent in our technologically generated virtual worlds, whether it be digital communities like Glitch (which did espouse an unregulated  sense of ethics)  or Call of Duty. The Daily Beast published an article on such virtuality recently, and in a latter paragraph, the author had this to say:

“No matter how you beef it up with little icons or fancy colors, [virtual worlds] don’t have the nuance of face-to-face interaction,” says Oxford University’s Susan Greenfield, who heads the U.K.’s Institute for the Future of the Mind.”

And nuance is the key to the problems of viruality: Social interaction in real life are deceptively complex, allowing persons to express, but also allowing for doubt, consolation, accommodation, and understanding that still seems only a dream in virtual worlds.

TV seeks only to draw our attention to their sponsorships, and it doesn’t particularly care about the short- and long-term effects of the manner in which it draws viewers in. Politicians, who we hope will solve the problems they’re elected to treat, make virtual games of competing ideologies – not in order to serve, but the keep their jobs. Athletes, singers, actors – and much of popular an literary writing – seek to entertain without the Aristotlean adjunct of art to also educate.

As a result, we’re drawing ourselves into a new form of tribalism, much of the impetuses for them based in unreality – – virtuality –  – a  series of worlds as imperfect and flawed as the new technologies that create them – – and we’re coalescing within thse new groups with weaponry. Can we retreat from these unreal worlds – or at least keep them in peaceful perspective? Let’s hope so, for the good of us all.

 

Visit my web site here, and my FB Fan Page here.

The Reality of Things

It’s magazine week again, so let’s dispense with the political smoke today and move on.

Harper’s Monthly – November 2012

 

We here in the U.S. have been ensnared of late with presidential election kerfuffles, both candidates and their surrogates disputing the claims of the other, and a cottage industry of fact-checkers is blooming. Harper’s Monthly must be feeling those vibes, because a lot of their November issue has to deal with the reality of things.

Victoria Miller’s article, “How To Rig an Election,” has to do with the age-old urge to rig elections in one group or another’s favor. This time, says the author, the GOP, feeling the seismic demographic shift in the U.S. away from a previously dominated WASP nation, is the culprit.

Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett engage us with their article, “The Mad Mullah Myth,” in which their claim is that the ruling theocracy of Iran isn’t the bat-crap crazy bunch our Neocons and others claim them to be. The authors strive to give us evidence that Iran has since its theocratic inception acted in a politically rational fashion.

Ian Volner writes – and gives us photos – in his article, “The Invisible Stimulus,” of the U.S.‘s much maligned economic stimulus package, indicating that yes, the stimulus did indeed produce results in both infrastructure and jobs. The problem is that these funds were packaged with other federal, state and local funds to accomplish their ends, and that makes it hard for the current administration to claim that the stimulus alone created good things.

To underscore this confusion of the real and the unreal, Harper’s gives us Heidi Julavits’ very clever short story, “This Feels so Real,” in which a woman’s former lover, unwilling to believe that he’s been spurned – and against prevailing evidence – all but stalks her.

An enjoyable and informative, albeit  argumentative issue – something all good magazines should be giving us.

 

 

 

Parsing the Horror Genre in Torn Realities

Torn Realities, A Horror Anthology

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I remember Buckminster Fuller writing that 95% of scientifically proven reality is beyond the realm of our human sensory tools. Even though we know this, our emotional – and large doses of our rational – makeup is hopelessly tied to our senses. Then, logic would tell us, if we were to have some sort of bleed-through into our senses from that other, over-large part of reality, we would become, well, uncomfortable. 

And this is what stories of the horror genre, such as those of Torn Realities, give us – visitations from beyond sensory norms. These stories inject outside-of-reality bleed-throughs into historical settings, into fantasy imaginings, into scientific what-ifs. Setting such stories almost invariably brings a solitary person into a secluded place, or a place in which buried things should be left alone, even into a sense of science beyond our human ability to handle. Mood is set through writerly devices that shine a light on the creepier aspects of such settings, virtually guaranteeing the reader will go to sleep with the lights on.

Not all such widely varied stories in an anthology will resonate with every reader. And, of course, I have favorites among the nineteen stories in this collection, which has been published by Eric Beebe’s PostMortem Press and edited by Paul Anderson

Horror icon Clive Barker’s Rawhide Rex dresses the Anglo-Saxon classic Beowulf in different clothes and delves into his victims’ lives, even into Rawhide’s psyche.  

James Dorr’s The Calm adds weather lore to the French and Indian War era’s backdrop within a lost village. 

Jeff Suess’ Hallowed Ground gives us the Civil War’s horror amplified by mystery and eerie presences that shadow the bodies of the dead.

 

Parenthetically, my story in this collection, The Offering, was an attempt to artistically recreate the mood I experienced of a long-ago visit to Mexico’s Yucatan, the throaty breathing of its jungle life, the guarded friendliness of the native Mayans, the almost creepy serenity of its ancient architecture. As such, it hangs by a thread in relevance to this genre, a genre I have little experience of. Still, Torn Realities is a formidable intro into this genre – whether you’re a long-time fan of horror, or, like me, a newbie.

 

And for you writers: I’ve never had an editor work with me in such close proximity, craft-wise, as did Paul Anderson. He knew what he wanted from the story in order to have it fit this collection, and he was most patient in shepherding me in that direction. 

 

My rating: 16 of 20 stars

 See Bob's Web Site here.

 

Drowning In Too Many Realities

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Harper's Magazine – June 2012

Yep. I knew it was just an anomaly. Harper's may have a boring, harum-scarum issue once in a while, but it never lasts. The June 2012 issue is one of those you wait for, its pieces set forth with an almost poetic sensibility. No? Then let me tell you how it impresses me in that way (and I'll just hit the high points):

It seems a set of metaphorical bookends sandwiching a pair of curt, literary broadsides on the derangement of western culture. The issue begins on the left (yes, I mean that metaphorically) with an essay by Barbara Ehrenreich on humanity's history of deifying animals, even during the two millennia of monotheism. Is this to say that animals and humans enjoy some spiritual link? Or is it that we seem to be awash in our human abilities and are seeking solace in the evolutionary past? Ehrenreich doesn't say,but she does seem to ask the question.

Then there's another essay (more of a screed, actually), "Wild Things," by David Samuels, in which he takes major zoos to task for their seemingly benign creation of zoo-scapes imitative of the animals' natural habitats. What's wrong with this, you ask? Samuels seems to feel that this assuages our guilt for destroying the natural habitats we imitate for the animals we hold captive.

And on the right we have the other bookend: a review by Andrew Bacevich of Robert Kagan's book, "The World America Made." Bacevich sees the Pax Americana view of the world as tripe, i.e., that the rationalizations made since WWII of an America spreading its exceptionalism (by definition, how can that be so?) via capitalistic emissaries and backed up by guns have re-created the world in America's image. That this hasn't happened, in fact that these efforts have impoverished the nation and alienated us from the rest of the world, seems fairly clear to all but those like Kagan who, as Bacevich puts it, "traffic in knowingness as opposed to actual knowledge."

And what lies between these bookends? First, a memoir, "My Old Man," by Clancy Martin of his father who, in the throes of a schizophrenic nature, smoked pot, preyed on women (and family) and absolved his sins via Eastern spirituality. And then a short story – "Fun Won," by Karl Taro Greenfeld, that begins as sillily as a college writing class project, in which yet another father bequeaths a pot smoking habit to his kids. But there's a subtlety here – these kids, coming of age in the nineties and deep in a sensory embrace, morph as you turn the page and blink into money- and status-mongers.

So what's behind the June edition's rather obvious editorial posture? I think it's a growing realization by these writers (and Harper's editors) that we've reached a stage of civilization in which we're less and less able to discern reality. When we can't intellectualize this cognitive dissonance, we attempt to strangle it with smoke, blow, and sex. Neil Young once termed this as being victims of our senses, but that's only half of it. Well on our way to surrounding ourselves with a virtual reality in which we can have it any way we like it, we seem bent on drowing what's left of our innate human reality in the equally ephemeral world of materialism, money, and status. This in turn yields Citizens United, the Tea Party, and banking gone bonkers.