Sunday, August 31, 2008

Review: The Truth About Stories by Thomas KingPosted by Picasa
The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative
By Thomas King

University of Minnesota Press

Thomas King is a Native writer who teaches in Canada and published most of his fiction while living there, including his novels, Medicine River (made into an obscure but amusing movie starring—who else—Graham Greene), Green Grass, Running Water and Truth and Bright Water, all of which are, among other things, pretty funny.

But he was born in Sacramento of Cherokee parentage and he’s best known locally as the author of a short story first published in the 1980s called “Joe Painter and the Deer Island Massacre,” only around here we know it as the Indian Island Massacre. This infamous moment in North Coast history was mostly only whispered about then.

As a university teacher and scholar, King is fully capable of presenting facts and analyzes in non-fictional form. But in this book he simultaneously demonstrates that the story form not only communicates fact and analysis with different subtlety and depth, but can be an essential part of the meaning itself.

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are,” he writes. That we learn primarily by stories is widely asserted these days, but King is very skilled at telling stories, and his adaptations of a Native storytelling style helps this book treat some old subjects in a different way, producing some “aha” moments for both those familiar with these issues and those new to them.

He contrasts a Native creation story in which animals cooperate in contributing elements of a new world with the Biblical version of authoritarian hierarchies, and shows how these myths are supported by how they’re told. He explores the complexities of identity and societal expectations, and narrative strategies in some contemporary Native literature that adapt traditional honor songs. He does all this and more with a deceptively light touch.

“You know what’s wrong with this world?” asks a character in Truth and Bright Water. “Nobody has a sense of humour.” “Humour” is Canadian for “funny,” and it’s essential to King’s method and point of view. Though a number of Native writers employ humor—including irony, satire and paradox-- (some conspicuously, like Sherman Alexie) it’s been King’s trademark. He happily mentions Will Rogers, the great American humorist of the 1930s, who (like King) was born Cherokee.

But King’s main source of humor is the trickster figure of Coyote, who makes several direct appearances here, as well as inspiring a lot of his tone and narrative moves. But he leaves out my favorite of the Coyote stories he tells, in a poem called “Coyote Learns to Whistle.” Weasel tells Coyote he can whistle if he ties his tail in a tight knot, and Coyote ties his so tight the tail breaks off. The poem ends: “Elwood told that STORY to the Rotary Club/in town/ and everyone laughed and says what/a STUPID Coyote./ And that’s the problem, you know,/seeing the DIFFERENCE between stupidity/and greed.”

King also writes about his project to photograph American Indian writers, contrasting it with 19th century photos of the Vanishing Indian. It probably would complicate his point--those romantic old photos had to falsify the imagery to comport with expectations of what Indians look like, but those images have lasted, versus photographing Indian writers today, when they look pretty much like everybody else--if he noted that part of his project was photographing these writers wearing Lone Ranger masks. (Still, the Lone Ranger appears on the cover.)

With a little autobiography and some sharp observations, “The Truth About Stories” is seductive, entertaining and sneakily profound. Also a nice size—under 200 pages, in an easy-to-hold paperback.

Monday, August 25, 2008


I wondered if anyone would join me in my alarm over what I regard as Simon & Schuster's scandalously irresponsible publication of Jerome Corsi's book of lies, Obama Nation. On the Huffington Post, Peter Dreier has found a few people in the industry willing to challenge this major publisher for its dangerous precedent.

On the Huffington Post, Dreier stated the basics: " Despite Obama Nation' s many lies and distortions, the book wasn't put out by an ideologically-driven right-wing publisher such as Regnery, but by the profit-driven Simon & Schuster, one of the country's largest and most respected publishers, now owned by CBS Corporation....The book has risen to the top of the Times best-seller list, despite indications that its sales were artificially inflated by bulk sales, most likely by right-wing anti-Obama groups."

After reiterating assertions I made earlier--that Corsi is not a credible character, that the book is full of easily debunked lies, and that Corsi is on the record as saying he wrote the book in order to defeat Obama--Dreier asks these pertinent questions concerning the threat this poses to the credibility of book publishing:

The book is filled with such factual errors. It is hard to attribute them to carelessness because all the errors distort Obama's life, views, writings, and political career in ways obviously intended to hurt the candidate's reputation. Simon & Schuster selected Obama Nation for major celebrity treatment, knowing that the book was written by an author with a well-deserved reputation for falsehoods. What, if any, responsibility do publishers have when dealing with a book and an author like this?

Given the controversy over Corsi's previous book, should Simon & Schuster have hired a fact-checker to make sure that Obama Nation, which they are promoting as "non-fiction," was reasonably accurate?

What responsibility, if any, do publishers and booksellers have in calling the book a "best-seller" when that label may be as fictitious as the information contained in the book itself?"

Drierer asked some people in the book industry for their answers.

"Its too bad that a publisher of Simon & Schuster's stature would call this a scholarly book," said Peter Osnos, the founder and editor of PublicAffairs Books, which publishes serious books on political topics.
I think it's more than too bad. It's utterly irresponsible, and calls into question the credibility of every book on Simon & Schuster's non-fiction list. I agree most heartily with Sara Nelson:

"It isn't likely that publishers will start their own fact-checking departments," said Sara Nelson, editor in chief of Publishers Weekly. "But whatever a book's political view, publishers have a responsibility, to the best of their ability, to make sure that what are claimed to be facts are true."

Drierer also notes that while the New York Times gave the book a #1 ranking on its best seller list but with a dagger, indicating group sales, it is still possible to game the system--and it shouldn't be.

Shouldn't publications find out whether the author or interest groups are responsible for inflating a book's sales by this method, before they call a book a "best seller"?

Deborah Hofmann, who tracks book sales and assembles the best-seller list for the New York Times, did not return repeated calls seeking answers to these questions. But a staff-person at a major book review told me that while some publishers, authors and interest groups have learned how to "game the system" by orchestrating bulk orders in multiple locations, publications with best-seller lists, including the prestigious New York Times, don't make much effort to find out who is involved and how big an influence they have in inflating sales.

Nelson, of Publishers Weekly, explained that publications with best seller lists could ask bookstores to identify how much of a book's total sales are due to this practice. "This information is knowable," she said, acknowledging that her own publication does not seek this information.

So those who could fairly easily track this information don't do it, presumably because it would cost them something, and besides, they sell newspapers and magazines when a book is controversial--and advertising, when a big publisher like S & S is pushing a book.

Similarly, S & S probably has modest political intent (though they have Mary Matalin publishing this and other right wing books, but no imprint for any other political persuasion), but they want to make money. So they are willing to spend a lot to make a lot, and apparently they don't care how they make it.

And people will be mildly scandalized, but this will set a precedent, and the next time, nobody will even blink. Greed makes everything okay, eventually. That's how decadence works.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Posted by Picasa
The Craftsman
By Richard Sennett
Yale University Press

Carpenter, lab technician, cook, software designer, glassblower, poet, the maker of musical instruments, the conductor of the orchestra that plays them, and the composer of the music they play—sociologist Richard Sennett calls them all craftsmen (be they female or male), and by this description, the category includes a decent chunk of the working population.

In fact, as Sennett describes and analyzes the history and qualities of craft, it becomes clear that they can apply in one way or another to everything from architecture to working behind the counter at a cafe. But that doesn’t make this book meaningless—quite the opposite. This is a discursive, intellectually stimulating and often fascinating discussion that at times seems like an engaged, elevating conversation.

As the author of The Hidden Injuries of Class, The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity & City Life and other books, Sennett has written credibly about people who work. This time he writes about the work itself. What seems to distinguish craft in his view is a combination of method skillfully applied, and intuitive improvisation with not just the task but the whole in mind. It is problem-solving creativity; pragmatic artfulness for a purpose.

The problems of craft in the age of machines is a theme of several chapters, but Sennett’s premise is that craftsmanship survives in an industrial age. “Craftsmanship names an enduring, basic human impulse, the desire to do a job well for its own sake.”

One element in common is working with materials, often with tools, and with some relationship of the hand and eye. But Sennett sees these in designing Linux code as well as weaving. Craft may mean working with limitations, resistance and ambiguity. He illuminates issues through real world examples: the problem of obsession in the design and building of two houses, or the role of frustration in digging tunnels under rivers. Even in the age of computer-assisted design (CAD), craftsmen can solve problems the computer can’t anticipate.

Craft requires attention, a fact that doesn’t get much attention in this attention-deficit age. A common touchstone in various endeavors for how long it takes to become an expert is ten thousand hours, he writes. That translates into three hours of practice a day for ten years. Repetition is therefore important, but isn’t it boring? Sennett writes that even expert craftsmen derive pleasure in it: “the emotional payoff is one’s experience of doing it again. There’s nothing strange about this experience. We all know it: it is rhythm.”

Speaking of rhythm, craft can also involve working with what others do, as in the craft of playing in a jazz ensemble, but also in building a house, “in which the relentless desire to get things right became a dialogue with circumstances beyond his control and the labor of others.” Craft can be a calling, which often begins with play.

Sennett involves history, aesthetics, psychology, physiology and philosophy in this book, which is replete with stories that are fascinating in themselves. Plato, Gregory Bateson, Mary Shelley, Chekhov and Julia Child figure in one way or another. Though he doesn’t deal with it much, Sennett acknowledges that writing is a craft. His own writing supports several of his contentions: it is structurally sound, but idiosyncratic and flexible according to its purpose. For some it may be too rigorous, for others too decorative, but it’s a Sennett all the way.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Number 1--with a dagger:This report
by the Obama campaign exposes the
blatant lies in the new book,"Obama Nation,"
which will be #1 on the New York Times
Best Seller List, but with a "dagger"
to indicate that it got to be a best seller
because of "bulk sales," which in this
case means right wing organizations
buying up copies, just to get an anti-Obama
book on the list, and get the resulting media
coverage.Posted by Picasa
Unfit for Publication

The Obama campaign issued a 41 page rebuttal of the many deliberate lies in the book, Obama Nation, under the highly relevant title of "Unfit for Publication." That the book, authored by a known liar who penned a similiar smear of John Kerry in 2004, is full of the most reprehensible lies and false charges, targeting the most basic fears of the uninformed, is already a matter of record. Even before the point by point refutations of the Obama document, Media Matters had debunked specific charges. Joe Klein of Time Magazine was more general but more direct--he called the book "swill," "sleaze," and "poisonous crap." Politico mentions some of the authors other whoppers.

While I am certainly concerned by the possible political effects, I am especially troubled by this book as an author and book reviewer: because it is being published by a major publishing house, Simon & Schuster, and its Threshold Editions imprint. Threshold is run by Mary Matalin, political aide to conservative Republicans, including Bush and Cheney. That she has become an editor with her own imprint is suspicious but not really the issue. What she has decided to do with that imprint, and what Simon & Schuster is allowing her to do, is to me a very basic threat to whatever is left of the integrity of American book publishing.

It's not simply that this book has not been "fact-checked," as if that means that some errors slipped in unnoticed. It is completely based on lies, from start to finish. It is, as a perceptive post called "Books That Attack and Mislead" at First Read notes, just another form of a negative political ad. After all, its author told the New York Times, “The goal is to defeat Obama,” Mr. Corsi said in a telephone interview. “I don’t want Obama to be in office.” But no political advocacy organization is paying to print this political smear, which has no basis in fact. A legitimate major publisher, that obviously wishes its nonfiction books to be taken seriously, is paying people to write, edit and promote this book.

Moreover, they are doing so with total dishonesty. Matalin told the Times the book “was not designed to be, and does not set out to be, a political book,” calling it, rather, “a piece of scholarship, and a good one at that.” She is lying, and she knows she is lying. She has no integrity whatsoever, and therefore, neither does the publisher anymore.

Yet the publisher is dressing this book up with a cover that emphasizes the author's supposed credentials (Phd), and with pages of scholarly-looking footnotes--that reportedly cite mostly right wing and hate sources, and the author's own publications or posts. Everything about this book is deceptive.Even the book's widely reported status as a #1 Best Seller is a deception. By the NY Times own admission, this book has been bought in bulk--hundreds if not thousands of copies purchased by rabid right and GOPer organizations, in a deliberate, organized attempt to make it a "Best Seller." Those copies will be given away, and will shortly begin appearing on the shelves of Salvation Army stores. I suspect that Matalin and her bosses knew this from the moment they agreed to publish this book.

We've had plagarism scandals, and scandals about fiction being falsely claimed as non-fiction--but there apparently is no scandal, just profit, in this most morally corrupt attack on the integrity of book publishing.

As Mark Murphy observed at First Read: "This is perhaps the greatest loophole for underground attacks to go mainstream. Forget blogs, the bookworld may still be the best place to push false truths about someone."If readers cannot trust the integrity of books as a general rule, and the implied promise by major publishers that their books are what they purport to be, then publishing has become a sham, and books have lost their credibility. That affects me as an author and as a book reviewer. This book is clearly unfit for publication, and Simon & Schuster should be called to account for utter disdain for integrity and the accepted standards of legitimate publishing, however minimal they have become.