Thursday, October 29, 2009

alexander writing on annie

I enjoyed skimming Alexander Chee's personal essay on writing classes at Wesleyan University. I did not take creative writing classes at Wesleyan as an undergrad, but I did know the names of the somewhat famous writers he speaks of--Annie Dillard, Kit Reed, Phyllis Rose, et al. Follow this link for the essay in full: http://www.themorningnews.org/archives/personal_essays/annie_dillard_and_the_writing_life.php

The closest I ever got to Annie Dillard, discounting selling her books after college while working in a Borders Bookshop, was seven years after graduation, where on a whim, I drove up to Middletown, CT for the Nietzsch Factor Alumni Ultimate Frisbee game. As it turned out, Annie Dillard had become a fan of Ultimate and in fact was the lone fan in attendance at the game. We gave the current undergrad team our best player and then played to fifteen. It was early spring, I had a common cold and was out of shape, but somehow I managed to leap into the air to snag the game-winning goal. If I'm not mistaken, the extra strength sudafed had gotten to my head, and I yelped at the extended defender whose dive had just missed blocking this catch, "Just another a scrub." I think that guy became a star, maybe even a captain, of New York club ultimate, and I more or less retired any dreams I had of playing serious disc. Because Annie was the only fan, and the only woman's voice, I know that her final words on this alumni game were, "At least it was exciting until the end," or something to that effect. I hope Professor Dillard has a chance to one day witness Nietzsch's return to glory and a trip to College Nationals.

As for the writing, it looks like Alexander Chee, Annie's writing student, has done very well. He is a visiting writer in Emily Dickinson land, at none other than Amherst College, and his novels are published or forthcoming.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

save the trees?

This article from The New York Times describes how one literary journal is embracing "new media," "social media," and more or less whatever else you would like to term it. To the best of my knowledge, they are not burning books, not even to heat their marginal, "start up" offices, but, yes, why of course, they are "tweeting" stories directly to your iphone and giving you additional options for receiving your content. Er, your short story I meant. Check it out:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/28/books/28electric.html?_r=1&hpw

It looks like Rick Moody and Colson Whitehead are already in on the deal. More later on how twitter.com plans to survive any future ice storm or hostile elevator environment. (Let me know if those literary allusions--read "bad puns"--are not so obscure for you.) Peace.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

obama, books, and small business

On the same day that President Obama's speech to the nation included plans to help small businesses weather the current economic storm, I read that independent bookstores have sent a letter to the Department of Justice asking for intervention in the price war over bestsellers at amazon.com, Walmart, and Target. From the article--http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/23/books/23price.html?ref=books--we learn that Sarah Palin's Going Rogue has depreciated two cents to $8.98, down from last Friday's $9 at either amazon.com or Walmart. (If you haven't been following that story, $8.98 is the price for this new hardcover whose original retail is close to thirty dollars.) We also learn that France already has a "prohibition against booksellers’ pricing books below cost." My best guess about Obama's speech is that it was focused more on getting small business groups to accept whatever healthcare overhaul we wind up with, but it'll be interesting to see if a possibly "progressive" President is interested in helping the smaller fries of the book world. Stay tuned.

don delillo in a downturn

I'm back for more White Noise; I'm sure you know what I mean. I'm teaching Don Delillo during our "Great Recession" and am drawn to passages such as this first paragraph of chapter 4:

When times are bad, people feel compelled to overeat. Blacksmith is full of obese adults and children, baggy-pantsed, short-legged, waddling. They struggle to emerge from compact cars; they don sweatsuits and run in families across the landscape; they walk down the street with food in their faces; they eat in stores, cars, parking lots, on bus lines and movie lines, under the stately trees.

(I apologize on behalf of literary Don if you see two places where you might like to add an "and.")

I will confess to my own overeating these days although so far I believe I've avoided "waddling" and am still masking the pounds I could "afford" to lose with shirts tucked in and pants cut close to the thigh and calf. It is funny that the novel is published in the middle of the go-go Reagan 1980s, a time period most of my students have been taught was a very, very good one; if you tell them in fact that not all boats were always lifted during the economic expanse between Carter and Bush I, they may look at you with surprise. I must say that I was surprised to read that unemployment in 1982 (you are welcome to attribute this all to either Reagan or Carter if this is part of your worldview, but other interpretations are also "allowed" here), before Reagan's growth years, was higher than it is now or then it was when I finished undergrad in 1991 (the Bush I/Clinton "tough times"). Although I like Delillo's writing, I suspect our American expansion of the waistline has gone up slowly and steadily and in fact has not carressed the sign-curve waves of our economic ups and downs. It could be that there is a parallel line here one could draw beside the everincreasing numbers of our uninsured. Yes, it is food for thought.

In 2009, during our own troubles but within the context of Delillo's novel, I can't help but wonder if we have greater unemployment lines for Professors of Elvis or Impersonators of Elvis. I'm guessing the bar mitzvah and birthday business catering to celebrity impersonators has pretty much dried up or been replaced by parties with videogame or other high-tech themes. The Professors of Elvis--in other words, recent PhDs in American Studies, Civilization, or "Environments" (as Delillo calls the department at College-on- the-Hill)--can probably at the very least drum up some adjunct work teaching freshman English at a community college and hopefully do much better.

One of my favorite supervisors in academia is in fact a Professor of Magic (PhD in Performance Studies), and in general, solid advanced education in any discipline requiring extensive reading and writing is most likely enough to hold down some sort of employment in these troubled times. There is evidence of a proliferation of online and offline academic journals as well as a small army of small presses and POD shops, so I imagine it is easier than ever before to get one's contribution to the King published. Of course, even more than finding readers for one's words, acquiring the PhD is the hard part, and it could be the case that the hurdles of Heideggar and Habermas are only some of the obstacles in the way of one's diploma in advanced Elvis. I would imagine Nietzsche, Foucault, and Barthes on the deaths of various "gods" and "authors" could also be relevant to such critical work "in the field."

Even within the world of academic Elvis, I imagine some stiff competition, and this New York Times article reminds me that any one of us with employment right now has a lot to be grateful for.
A subtext within the article seems to be that we are somewhat lucky if we felt we could never afford one of the new, expansive homes (and mortgages) offered so freely in the early aughts; several of the seniors reported on are finding it is housing payments that are keeping them looking for work despite social security and even small pensions.

Last, a student told me that there is a television show in which one of the characters plays the literary agent of Don Delillo. This seems even more impressive (or alarming?) than the citing of his name as a reference point for literary success in Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives.

For further reading in the Don, Libra and Underworld are longer and more recent, but I highly recommend his early novels, the first three in fact: Americana, End Zone, and Great Jones Street.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

no college student left behind?

Harper's Magazine offers this take on the (in)solvency of Brandeis University: http://harpers.org/media/pages/2009/11/pdf/HarpersMagazine-2009-11-0082722.pdf
I'm sorry you won't be able to read the article (read "diagram") without a subscription to the magazine.

My best hunch is that there are many other schools with similar economic problems, and yet the audacity of expansion straight through a serious downturn is its own way impressive. I imagine college administrators near and far have a tremendous fear of what would happen to the enrollment numbers if their campuses were unable to offer the "cutting edge" or "newest facilities" or "high-tech dorms" or "state-of-the-art gym equipment."

In another article, I read that many Japanese private universities are in danger of going out of business. At an on-campus workshop, I mentioned that even Harvard University had cut jobs (around 500 if I'm not mistaken) this past year, and the glib facilitator of the event replied, "Do you think up at Harvard they ever note that even [add any school South of the Mason-Dixon line] cut jobs?" It sounded funny at the time, but the larger point to me is that recession and downturn are true global phenomena and that if understood in a more honest way, they could encourage more national and global cooperation.

National politicians of course have to be wary of how they embrace any "global" unity or togetherness whether the topic is global warming or higher education, and true to the conditions that get people elected, President Obama has stated he wants the United States to have the largest percentage of college graduates of any developed-world country. I believe this is a nice goal, even an essential one if we hope to maintain our status as a world leader in information, technology, or even information technology.

But perhaps a better goal would be to offer the best ratio of teachers to students at the institutions who will be doing the educating? By teachers, we could focus on access and class size; in other words, we could offer our young-adult citizens the greatest number of professors who actually teach our undergrads. In an age when lofty rhetoric and representation so often trump reality, we will most likely continue the trend of increasing the number of students while we decrease the number of undergraduate teachers, and I suspect as a nation, we will pretend we are doing the opposite. And this will most likely be both a national and global trend. As long as President Obama doesn't call his stated goal "No College Student Left Behind," I think the votership will give him the benefit of the doubt. I suppose we could try to get the k-12 teacher-student ratios down first.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

merci bien mes amis

Merci tres bien pour des citoyens de France qui a lu Des Etats-Unis du Kudera. Pardonez moi pour le francais pas tres bien (mais j'espere pas mal?). 35 percent of our readership comes from France according to this pie chart: http://www.sitemeter.com/?a=stats&s=s26kudera&r=83. Dans ma vie de reve, je suis un auteur de Paris qui habite pres de Jardin du Luxembourg en La Sixieme Arrondisement. Un cafe, un stylo, le papier, etc. I cannot explain how I would actually pay for an apartment there, but it would certainly not be based upon my memory and knowledge of masculine and feminine nouns... they're killing me. Argh!

Monday, October 19, 2009

thinking globally

Wild and crazy Kudera'll push the envelope here and state that women in their mid-fifties should not be forced to sleep in their cars in the freezing cold of Cleveland, Ohio or any other region of the country. Heck, I'll show my hand and state that the woman in this article has a right to lodging. Call me crazy, but I'm thinking a just society would be one that houses its residents.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/19/business/economy/19foreclosed.html?em

The woman in the article grew up in a housing project in Neptune, NJ, and it is sad to say that her life is basically back to where she started, only this time her current shelter bedroom comes with a 3-month time limit. So you could say the pull-out couch she slept on while being raised by a single mother was much better becuase she could come home everyday knowing she had a place to sleep.

The economic crisis is also negatively impacting children of divorce as men are disproportionately losing their jobs (the decline of domestic manufacturing et al) and no longer able to pay child support. Family court remains focused on what's best for children, but based upon another article, some of the judges in such courts are either ignorant of economic particulars or outright lying to these men reporting reduced income.

According to http://www.philly.com/philly/business/personal_finance/55404262.html, the Department of Children and Families in Florida told a divorced man his support would not be lowered because his industry will bounce back. Do we need economists (Krugman more than Bernanke) as expert witnesses to verify the claims of lost work? Is it possible the judges and attorneys need assigned reading--a sort of pre-class work--from the Business news or government statistics on employment?

We should note that according to an op-ed piece in the New York Times, things are much worse in Russian monotowns: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/17/opinion/17aron.html?sq=Russia%20monotowns&st=cse&scp=1&pagewanted=all. According to the article, Russians in these remote towns report that they are eating potato peels, roots, berries, and grass.

Please don't tell me this means the woman sleeping in the cold in her car should feel grateful.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

american literature???

The New York Times online has a short article in the Week in Review on American Literature, and it seems worth reading:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/weekinreview/18schillinger.html?_r=1&hpw

In particular, it takes issue with the folks across the pond at Nobel (er, Sweden) for calling American literature "too isolated, too insular." I'd have to agree with the "paper of record" and further the thought by mentioning that so many of our great novels--from Melville's Moby Dick to Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms to Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow--do not take place in America. The article does a good job of describing the incredible diversity of contemporary American fiction as well as the finalists for the 2009 National Book Award.

On a side note, it's nice to see that Jayne Anne Phillips is one of the nominees for this year's NBA although I can't say I've read Lark and Termite or any of the other finalists.

Friday, October 16, 2009

USK going international

Hey bloggers!

Don't forget that a fun thing to do is to add a sitemeter.com tool to your blog. This will enable you to find out where your readers live or at least where the companies that provide their internet are located. Scroll down to the bottom of the United States of Kudera (this blog) and click on the green sitemeter.com. You can click "World Map" to the left, adjust the number below the map to see the last 100 views, and learn that USK is being read (or at least glanced at) by folks as far apart as Eastern Europe and the West Coast of the United States. Sitemeter.com offers a few free lines of HTML code to help you get started. It's not too difficult, and they do provide clear instructions. A lot of what sitemeter.com offers is free, but they also offer advanced features for various monthly charges. You can select a set up that ensures your viewership remains private; in other words, you will be able to see results but readers of your blog will not.

Have a good weekend!

Going Rogue at Uncle Sam's Club or amazon?

Walmart and amazon.com are saving consumers money on a few choice bestsellers by offering them for less than cost; I would imagine this will make it very difficult for anyone not named Sam or Jeff to sell Sarah Palin's Going Rogue for a profit this fall. According to the article below, you can buy a copy of Palin's book for $9 at either megastore:

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20091016/ap_on_bi_ge/us_wal_mart_book_price_war

Although I won't be Going Rogue this November, or going anywhere else most likely, it is with disappointment that I recognize that these two large companies--indeed, the 500-pound guerillas of the retail world--more or less have me trained to look for their discounts first before I shop for anything these days. I imagine my experience is like that of millions of other Americans in that we don't feel we can afford NOT to check out the low prices at Walmart or amazon.com. It is important to recognize that neither company has a monopoly on low price, and in fact, both companies are doing what every succesful company in the history of retail has done--bring people in with specific low-priced items and then sell them other products before they leave.

It's intriguing to think about how "un-Rogue" the "Going" is if one is purchasing the product from the local (read "global") monopoly--be it a virtual storefront or big-box environment. Am I going out on a limb here if I guess that shopping at Walmart is part of Politician Palin's rogue agenda for her nation? I can't say for certain, but she just doesn't strike me as an amazon.com kind of girl.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

under 40 in america

According to this article, less than a third of adult Americans under age 35 earn enough money to be fully self-supporting and a third live with their parents.

When Ben Bernanke says the recession is "very likely over," it is just another perfect example of how a technical term like "recession" fails to explain anything real about the "real economy" or about life in America. By many criteria--including increased student loan obligations and fierce global competition--the average 20 or 30 something in our country has it worse than previous generations, and yet for some inexplicable reason, it seems as if this same generation has been exposed to higher expectations in regard to careers and life choices.

Where do these expectations come from? Can we blame it all on Hollywood film and TV advertising? Could it be that even the parents, teachers, coaches, and other "leaders" of our young adults are getting their information from the same flimsy sources or televised news? Are political leaders participating in this national ignorance by recognizing that pessimistic expression is rarely a vote getter? To what extent does our cultural rite and obligation of "optimism" obfuscate reality? If we tell our children to become nurses and engineers are we solving the problem of generational underemployment? What should we say to anyone under 40? Do the parents of these grown children owe them an apology or at least a place to sleep? The above article also reports that 60 percent of grandparents provide some financial support to their children with children. What will happen if and when these wells run dry?

When I graduated from college in 1991, the unemployment rate was around nine percent, about a point lower than it is today, and I met a lot of college grads with good degrees (Swathmore, UPenn, solid state schools, and other competitive universities) feeling fortunate to be employed with full health benefits at $6.25 per hour for a national bookstore chain. Return to the same bookstore today, and I can't tell you if the workers are commonly in possession of a four-year college degree, but I can tell you that very few of the new hires receive full-time hours or health benefits. The wage itself is higher but has not kept up with the rate of inflation.

The push for health coverage is an important one, but the push for jobs is more immediate and more critical. Although the goal is to insure more Americans, a real success of any legislation that passes will be that it creates jobs for Americans. If it creates jobs... and, of course, if it passes.

Monday, October 12, 2009

the empire strikes back

For pessimists and students of corporate capitalism, it must come as no surprise that the unlikely marriage between Big Insurance and Barack Obama's healthcare reform is on the rocks. This article describes a final push from large insurance companies to defeat healthcare reform or at least the parts of it that could hurt their own profits: http://www.philly.com/inquirer/front_page/20091012_Health_insurers_to_launch_assault.html

There certainly is an "I" in FIRE, and it appears the Insurance leg of Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate will be going this battle alone. Could it be that the Finance and Real Estate industries are already so beholden to recent government bailouts and stimulus packages that they would risk sacrificing their cousins and neighbors turning a buck in the healthcare game?

The large insurance companies will of course "brand" themselves as protecting consumers by maitaining lower premiums as they fight off all the parts of Obama's plan that threaten their profits (public option, healthcare cooperative, etc.).

Will this work?

It seems like one potential obstacle for the insurance companies is that our total healthcare costs are already so high (for those of us who subsist in the middle and are lucky enough to have coverage), that the average insured person could have trouble comprehending how Big Insurance works to save said regular Joe or Josephine any money at all. Because this kind of average insured American is also likely to be a holder of stocks and bonds (through mutual funds most likely), it seems possible he or she is aware that private companies must first pass on profits to shareholders and workers before there is any talk of reduced premiums for average insured Joey and Josie who have a bad habit of getting older and older and closer to actual need for more expensive healthcare services.

Also, when the number of uninsured exceeds the number of votes either Gore or Bush received in the 2000 Presidential election, it would seem like there are millions of "consumers" who cannot afford to "consume" any current options; Big Insurance will not get very far targeting the unisured in ads. (Note that millions of these people--children, for example--do not have a right to vote.) Also, the trend in state budgets is to survive by adjusting to reduced tax revenue by reducing state welfare, so states are seeing a rise in waiting lists for state subsidies for health coverage. (The number of uninsured is rising and will continue to rise.)

As bad as the real economy gets, there are still millions more of us holding on to jobs and health coverage, so once again, it is up to us to decide which kind of America we'd like to live in. America has never been a static entity; there has always been change. The blend of capitalist and socialist (safety net) principles has been altered and adjusted throughout the 20th century; one could argue that a 21st-century move toward a public option is more consistent with historical precedent than keeping an industry unregulated, so it can survive. "Creative destruction" plays out in many different ways in a capitalist democracy.

If Obama fails on health-coverage reform, do we look for an attack on Big Macs and KFC? There are other ways to fry potatoes and protect the health of one's citizens.

Rumor has it that Michael Moore is leading a campaign to get Chris Dodd to donate all of his profits from politics (his life savings that is) to pay the insurance premiums of uninsured adults in Hartford, CT. If I'm not mistaken, CT's central pulse was once the insurance capital of the world. It remains unclear if Mr. Moore plans to use his own life savings to pay the premiums for the citizens of Flint or Detroit.

Michael, is that you on the phone? Sorry, wrong number.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

$11K fines for free!

This link leads to an article from The Washington Post on the Federal Trade Commission's revised guidelines for corporate endorsements. As I understand the new rules, it is possible for an independent blogger to receive a fine of up to $11,000.00 if it can be proven that the product he or she wrote in favor of was received for free.

Does this mean that the person whose church provided a Bible is obliged to mention that the Bible was provided free of charge before he or she proceeds to spread the good word?

This paragraph from The Post article does a good job of summing up the fact that "professional journalists" (an occupation from the past that once paid handsomely and offered union protection and dental) have been treated to free goodies for years:

"For instance, traditional reporters and journalists have long received products and services to review. In the ethical world, brands entrusted the resulting experience with the reviewer and used corporate collateral and not monetary pressure to help sway positive exposure. In some cases those reviewers either kept products or received services, without paying for them, whether or not they ever published an unbiased review. Why are professional bloggers viewed differently?"

My favorite example of this is car reviewers at major papers getting all-expenses-paid weekend trips for the sole purpose of test driving the new product from Ford or GM. Yes, reviewer, you can enjoy two nights in a four-star hotel with lots of food and only other reviewers to fight in a crowd around the dessert bar. You can imagine the kinds of articles that are written in major newspapers and sold as the automobile "news."

In general, improved regulation of the most egeregious "undercover" or "stealth" marketing campaigns could be a good thing. We don't want our "testimonials" to be fiction whether the product is from Big Pharma or Big Book (hi, JB). But let's make sure we remember that larger entities that already control markets are the ones we're supposed to fight if we believe our anti-trust legislation is legislation that improves a democracy. An $11,000 fine will not hurt the bigs in any industry. Hmmm. Does that mean the law has been redesigned to fight the little guy?

At this point, I cannot say for sure.

But one thing I do know is that the little blogger receiving stories for free, writing favorably about them, and perhaps reselling some if possible, is most likely a book lover who would prefer to have a steady job.

Is the FTC taking applications these days?

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

our official position on book reviewing

USK does not see itself as a source of perfectly objective information when it comes to books. In fact, USK only represents the opinions of its blog staff! Our official position at the United States of Kudera is that we try to keep it positive when we are writing about books. This is partly because one of our opinions is that it is so difficult to sell anything these days, and in particular it is so difficult to sell books not "written" by Sarah Palin or given an Oprah endorsement. We do receive a few books for free here or there, but we have not received anything directly from Oprah or Sarah Palin.

In general, we do like books written by our friends and acquaintances, and we like you, and we will like you even more if you try to write a book (preferably a novel, but we're down with short stories and poetry as well). If Sarah and Winfrey ever write a novel, we might take a look at it, and if we read and like it, then we could let that be known at http://kudera.blogspot.com/.

In an age when the cable "news" can be hard to differentiate from infomercials and corporate advertising, it is good to know that the FTC is keeping its eye on the dangerous world of paid bloggers receiving their books for free!

It reminds me of seeing a known book reviewer (like a "known criminal" yes, but what I meant was, "a book reviewer I know") on his moving day, and he had about 300 books he was hoping someone would take off his hands. Dangerous hands those were no doubt... of course, this was before he became a blogger.

Who says the pen is weaker than the sword? Yah!

the publishing self

If you're thinking of wading into the wild and wacky waters of self-publication, check out this wikipedia.org article for inspiration: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-publishing#Self-published_best-sellers.

Although the article is flagged for missing some "verification" of sources, it appears as if many of your favorite canonical writers were once in the same position you were in (except they weren't reading this on a netbook while tweeting their novel in 140 character spurts). Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and e.e. cummings are some of the authors listed; perhaps fearing that the wiki readership could find the news so inspiring that they bumrush the lulu.com website, the article's writer notes that it is "extremely rare" that self-published books find a "large audience."

Yeah, we know this, but remember that most books published by major and minor houses fail to find a readership too. Is anyone not named Sarah Palin going to profit from book sales this winter???

Hey, if that fact stops you from writing, then you're not a writer. And let's not wade into David Letterman territory by asserting that Sarah Palin is not a writer either.

Before his on-air apology, when was the last time Dave wrote his own material?