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Recommended reading, Dec. 4

Fri, 2 Dec 2016 17:36:56 UT

The Last Shift Poems A Life in Poetry In two new posthumous collections, scrupulously edited by Levine’s devoted friend and fellow poet Edward Hirsch, we see the range and depth of his emotions, literary scope and political passions. Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement Lowery provides an anthropological examination of how civil rights protesting, long dormant, has been revived. The result is a vivid timeline of the movement from its origins to the present day. Mister Monkey On the surface, Prose’s novel makes highly entertaining theater out of a children’s musical. Underneath, the book is as serious as the characters are about their obsessive concerns: climate change, evolution and disintegration, failure and loneliness. Graywolf Press; 358 pages; $26 Szalay’s interesting conceit is to string nine separate stories together about men at different ages to form a composite portrait of white European manhood.



Literary guide

Fri, 2 Dec 2016 17:36:44 UT

2 p.m. Diesel, 2419 Larkspur Landing Circle, Larkspur. 4 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 11:30 a.m. $115 singles; $175 couples. Winter Cookbook Extravaganza Georgeanne Brennan, Heidi Gibson, Nate Pollak, Cal Peternall and Alanna Taylor-Tobin are featured. 1 p.m. Diesel, 5433 College Ave., Oakland. Bill Ayers “Demand the Impossible! A Radical Manifesto.” Commonwealth Club, 555 Post St., S.F. (415) 597-6705. www.commonwealthclub.org. 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Genny Lim, Nellie Wong The poets read followed by an open mike. 7 p.m. Bird & Beckett Books & Records, 653 Cheneryt St., S.F. (415) 586-3733. www.birdbeckett.com. Kepler’s Books and Magazines, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. 7 p.m. City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., S.F. (415) 362-8193. www.citylights.com. Elaine Petrocelli & Friends “Holiday Gift Book Review.” Koret Auditorium, S.F. Library, main branch, 100 Larkin St., S.F. www.sfpl.org. 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Michael Goorjian “What Lies Beyond the Stars.” Julian Guthrie “How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight.” 7 p.m. Books Inc., 301 Castro St., Mountain View. In Deep Radio Angie Coiro welcomes Cleve Jones, author of “When We Rise.” 7:30 p.m. Kepler’s Books and Magazines, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. Scott Savitt Crashing the Party: An American Reporter in China. 7 p.m. City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., S.F. (415) 362-8193. www.citylights.com. David Thomson “Television: A Biography.” In Search of the Good Life by the Golden Gate. 7 p.m. Barbary Coast Restaurant, 478 Green St., S.F. (415) 362-8193. www.citylights.com. 7 p.m. Books Inc., 2251 Chestnut St., S.F. (415) 931-3633. www.booksinc.net. John Pomfret “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom.” West Marin Review Artists read from and discuss new work. 7:30 p.m. Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 9th Ave., S.F. (415) 742-5833. www.greenapplebooks.com. Bay Area Women Writers Alyss Dixon, Lluvia de Milagros Carrasco and Arielle Schussler are featured. 7 p.m. Octopus Literary Salon, 2101 Webster St., Oakland. www.oaklandoctopus.org. George Mitchell, Alon Sachar, Jeffrey Bleich “A Path to Peace: A Brief History of Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations and a Way Forward in the Middle East.” 6 p.m. Diesel, 2419 Larkspur Landing Circle, Larkspur. The Unconventional Raising of a Champion. Erin Gleeson “The Forest Feast Gatherings.” [...] Known as Guru Road, a Testament Inscribed in Sone Tablets by Dewayne Williams. 3 p.m. Diesel, 2419 Larkspur Landing Circle, Larkspur. Writers with Drinks Michael Krasny, Daryl Gregory, Anne Raeff, Variny Yim, Vidhu Aggarwal and Garrett Caples are featured. 7:30 p.m. $5-$20.



Weekend booking: Bernie Sanders

Thu, 1 Dec 2016 23:42:09 UT

The presidential primaries are a thing of the past, but Bernie Sanders is suddenly back on the road. The former Democratic candidate is now touring the country with a new book, “Our Revolution,” that examines his grassroots movement and the ways in which Americans can fight for change in the aftermath of the election. We can continue down the current path of greed, consumerism, oligarchy, poverty, war, racism, and environmental degradation.



Cleve Jones’ memoir says gay rights movement saved his life

Wed, 30 Nov 2016 20:56:39 UT

Cleve Jones’ memoir says gay rights movement saved his life Here, Jones became a central figure in an effort that helped elect the first openly gay person to a public office in California, and served as a nationwide catalyst for civil rights. “It’s turned out to be very timely, because of the election,” Jones said of the book, but I felt there was an urgency to it anyway, because my generation of gay men is disappearing rapidly; half of us were killed by AIDS, and those of us who survived are getting old. [...] I wanted young people to know about that time, when it was still a criminal offense to be gay — before we had political power, before we were represented in pop culture — we did nonetheless have lives and engaged in struggle. While more than half of “When We Rise” chronicles life before the onset of the AIDS pandemic in 1982, it also follows Jones into the present, and we see him rise from the shy, terrified child planning suicide to a leader of a national movement, marching with the quilt in President Bill Clinton’s inauguration parade; at the Academy Awards as “Milk” won best original screenplay and best actor; and through the passing, upholding and overturning of the anti-marriage-equality Proposition 8 and the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in 2015, that legalized same-sex marriage. “When We Rise” is the partial inspiration for the forthcoming ABC miniseries of the same title, written by Dustin Lance Black, produced by Gus Van Sant and starring Guy Pearce as Jones. U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera reads at UC Berkeley’s Lunch Poems series (12:10 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1, 101 Library Court, Morrison Library in Doe Library, Berkeley, free). www.lunchpoems.berkeley.edu Bay Area poets celebrate the life and work of Max Ritvo, who was diagnosed with cancer at age 16 and died this year at 25, on the occasion of the publication of his collection of poems, “Four Reincarnations” (Milkweed Editions) (7:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 1, Amado’s, 998 Valencia St., S.F., free). www.greenapplebooks.com The third annual Howard Zinn Book Fair brings together authors, academics, zinesters and other critical thinkers for a day of readings, panels and workshops “exploring the value of dissident histories towards building a better future.” The more than 40 sessions include everything from “Radical Approaches to Early Childhood Education” to “Abolishing Corporate Rights Through Politics and Art” (10 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, City College, 1125 Valencia St., S.F., free). www.howardzinnbookfair.com



‘They Can’t Kill Us All,’ by Wesley Lowery

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 17:46:53 UT

Ferguson, Baltimore, and a New Era in America’s Racial Justice Movement is more than just a compilation of the circumstances that sparked a racial justice movement that was broadcast on social media before it hit TV screens and the front pages of newspapers. The 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in Ferguson, Mo., is where it all began. Lowery was on the streets filled with people demanding to be acknowledged, where he captured the distrust and fear of police. Lowery provides an anthropological examination of the movement, how civil rights protesting, long dormant, has been revived. [...] Lowery allows the voices of the new generation of activists, who have democratized reporting on unrest through real-time social media updates, to tell their stories. “They Can’t Kill Us All” is a documentary on the awakening of young black Americans — no, all Americans — to the systemic injustices that weren’t erased with the election of President Obama. “Any facade of a post-racial reality was soon melted away amid the all-consuming eight-year flame of racial reckoning that Obama’s election sparked,” Lowery writes. There are vignettes on popular figures such as Johnetta Elzie, DeRay Mckesson and Shaun King, who rose to prominence in the wake of Ferguson. The book is a reminder that police killings of black men and women are a national crisis. In 2015, in only six of 248 cases of fatal shootings by police of black men were charges brought.



‘The Last Shift’ and ‘My Lost Poets,’ by Philip Levine

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 17:35:05 UT

In two new posthumous collections, “The Last Shift” and “My Lost Poets,” scrupulously edited by Levine’s devoted friend and fellow poet Edward Hirsch, we see the range and depth of his emotions, literary scope and political passions. The Pulitzer Prize-winning poet’s tone is always deliberate, conversational, in the tradition of William Carlos Williams, and attentive to detail. A champion of the working class, Levine, who died last year at 87, can bring to mind the sardonic, street-smart ear of fellow Michiganders Elmore Leonard, Jim Harrison and even (dare I say it?) Eminem. Slow learner though I am, it took me one night/ to discover that rain in New York City/ is just like rain in Detroit. In “My Lost Poets,” which serves as a coda to his earlier memoir, “The Bread of Time,” the former U.S. poet laureate fondly recalls youthful friends like Bernard Strempek, “a tall, loose-limbed boy with the hurt face of a fallen angel — he looked no older than fifteen.” Whispering words in the Miles Poetry Room at Wayne College (later renamed Wayne State), he bonds with others — Dudley Randall, Paul Petrie, Ulysses Wardlaw, Ruby Teague. “Where would I have been without ... my comrades, whose words inspired me, whose belief in me kept me going,” he writes. Where would I have been without all of them ... without the dreams of all my lost or forgotten poets, my brothers and sisters in madness and glory who shared with me their faith in the power of the perfect words, the words we knew as children and then forgot. There’s some delicious gossip about a Los Angeles expedition with his mentor, a very inebriated John Berryman, which culminates in a bemused account of Robert Lowell’s aristocratic hauteur (only unbent, in this telling, when the Boston Brahmin is taken to a film set by Christopher Isherwood and catches a fascinated glimpse of the half-clad Jayne Mansfield). The collection’s final essay, “Getting and Spending,” rebukes Wordsworth’s dogged self-regard (he once snubbed Keats, an unforgivable sin), and elegizes Larry Levis, a Central Valley poet who died too young. Levis’ poem “Whitman” disgustedly recounts how a shopping center was renamed in “honor” of the bard’s torn-down Long Island house, and quotes the telling epigraph of “Democratic Vistas”: “I say we had better look our nation searchingly in the face, like a physician diagnosing a deep disease.” The Walt Whitman shopping center does exist. Once the poet’s house was gone, the next thing America set about was the murder of the poet’s words, and that was simple: they made him assigned reading. “The Last Shift” ends, appropriately, with the title poem, which displays a sense of melancholy no less deeply felt than, say, Robert Frost or Wallace Stevens, but has considerably more urban bite. Philip Levine, poet, polemicist, teacher, truth teller, is neither lost, nor last.



‘Mister Monkey,’ by Francine Prose

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 17:30:19 UT

Even Mario, the theater-loving waiter who’s seen the show multiple times, has to admit to himself that the plot — a love story arising from a court case to defend an unjustly accused chimpanzee — is “imbecilic.” [...] one of the book’s most appealing characters, dinosaur-loving kindergartner Edward, asks at an unfortunately quiet moment in the performance, “Grandpa, are you interested in this?” The author of more than two dozen works of fiction and nonfiction, including the novel “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932,” Prose has expanded this one moment into an imaginative, satirical and melancholy portrait of a group of New Yorkers loosely connected through the play. Adam, the adolescent playing Mister Monkey, finds himself possessed by mischievous urges that lead to the unraveling of the other actors’ performances. Eleanor, the villain of the musical — an emergency-room nurse in her day job — prays constantly, trying to keep from giving way to irritation and judgment even as she performs surprising acts of charity. On the surface, the novel makes highly entertaining theater out of the characters’ lives and the increasingly disastrous performances of the play. The characters grapple with mortality — their own prospective deaths, the imagined or actual deaths of their parents, and the even more dire sense of the oncoming end of the world. “Uncle Vanya,” the Chekhov play that unites environmental despair with failures of love and connection, threads through the novel, though ironically the main plot twist arising from its inclusion in “Mister Monkey” leads to love rather than patient acquiescence. The book’s language slides easily from highly readable vernacular into prose poetry, as when Adam, looking out of his Battery Park window, moves from reality into fantasy: Marionette strings of moonbeams yank at the waves until the current boils up, splashing over the sidewalk, licking the trees. Fish ride the swollen river, which dumps them on the rooftops, where they flop around, gasping and dying, until swarms of hungry seagulls swoop down, and a red curtain of fish blood and guts slicks Adam’s window.



‘All That Man Is,’ by David Szalay

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 17:24:10 UT

Not so much the loss of a loved one or marriage, though Szalay’s characters at points encounter both, but rather all the other losses that color the anxieties of our times: losses of power and wealth, status and job security, not to mention the ability, when going out at night, to “pull.” Szalay’s interesting conceit, in a hybrid work short-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize, is to string nine separate stories together about men at different ages, climbing up from 17 to 73, to form a composite portrait of white European manhood. In every piece, men are traveling, whether a casual tourist, teenagers roughing it across Europe, an aimless college dropout on a package holiday in Cyprus, or on business, sometimes legitimate (the potential development of Alpine holiday chalets), sometimes shady (a couple of Hungarians organizing high-end prostitution gigs in London). Searching for meaning, or at least satisfaction and the closing of some kind of deal, these men’s relations with each other and with the women they hit on are frequently fueled by large amounts of alcohol and regular infusions of fast food. In careful, spare prose reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s, Szalay captures landscapes urban (London’s “little mazy streets of pinched, identical houses”), rural (“the lagoon, when he arrives at it, shines like a sheet of metal” in northern Italy), and frequently a suburban in-between: Cluses is prosaic, a series of small roundabouts. Szalay’s nicely specific details ground these characterizations: the underemployed security guard Balazs, not fully in control of his own violent urges, tries after his long night shifts to finish reading “Harry Potter és a Titkok Kamrája”; a bitter, lost Scot named Murray, after pursuing a doomed purchase of a minibus fleet in Croatia, chats up a middle-aged woman he is only faintly attracted to by talking to her for a full half hour about the entire Mercedes range. Dark though it is, Szalay’s work is paradoxically consoling, as he allows his characters, even in the midst of their failure and alienation, unexpected moments of connection — of light, both literal and metaphorical. After getting fired, a young Frenchman goes on a pre-booked holiday to Cyprus — alone, though this makes him feel “loserish” — yet at his shabby, disappointing hotel he encounters an English mother-daughter pair with whom he enjoys an erotic adventure. In a later piece, a Russian oligarch in his 60s, facing unprecedented material loss after the failure of an ill-advised lawsuit, spends a moody night aboard his mega-yacht, contemplating suicide; a series of shared meals sees him trying to engage with his lawyer, an English acquaintance, and finally one of his bodyguards.



Recommended reading, Nov. 27

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 17:23:33 UT

Chabon’s latest work, a quasi-memoir couched in a novel’s clothing, is both a hotchpotch stroll down memory lane and an exercise in exploring the slippery nature of truth and memory. The Attention Merchants The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads Swing Time The Penguin Press; 455 pages; $27 Smith’s vibrant novel follows two biracial childhood friends over decades, tracking the rise and ebb of their friendship and fortunes as they shimmy on the fringes of the musical entertainment industry. The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel Bar-Joseph’s book contains all the essential elements of spycraft: a high-placed source whose motivations are suspect, rivalries between intelligence agencies, exotic geographic locales and the suspicious “accidental” death of the spy at the heart of it all.



Literary guide

Sun, 27 Nov 2016 17:23:16 UT

Literary guide Mark Coleman “Make Peace With Your Mind.” 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Elizabeth Rynecki “Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter’s Quest for Her Lost Art Legacy.” 7 p.m. Books Inc., 74 Town & Country Village, Palo Alto. Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St., S.F. (415) 392-4400. www.cityarts.net. 6 p.m. Book Passage, One Ferry Building, S.F. (415) 835-1020. www.bookpassage.com. 7 p.m. City Lights Bookstore, 261 Columbus Ave., S.F. (415) 362-8193. www.citylights.com. Joel Coen, Davia Nelson The filmmaker and the radio producer/host in conversation. 7:30 p.m. $29. Nourse Theater, 275 Hayes St., S.F. (415) 392-4400. www.cityarts.net. Kimberly Ford Discussing Ron Hansen’s “Mariette in Ecstasy.” 1 p.m. Kepler’s Books and Magazines, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. 7 p.m. Copperfield’s Books, 850 Fourth St., San Rafael. Laura Jane Grace Tyranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout. 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Simple, Nourishing Recipes for Health and Vitality. More Adventures From the Andy Cohen Diaries. Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F. (415) 597-6705. www.commonwealthclub.org. 5 p.m. Borderlands Books, 866 Valencia St., S.F. borderlands-books.com. 6 p.m. Book Passage, One Ferry Building, S.F. (415) 835-1020. www.bookpassage.com. Steven Johnson Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. 7:30 p.m. Kepler’s Books and Magazines, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. Robbie Robertson, with Dan Stone “Testimony.” 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Salutations An evening of letter reading. 7:30 p.m. Green Apple Books on the Park, 1231 9th Ave., S.F. (415) 742-5833. www.greenapplebooks.com. Marin Showcase Theater, 10 Avenue of the Flags, San Rafael. www.marincounty.org/depts/cu/calendar. New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods. Trine Hahnemann Scandinavian Comfort Food: Embracing the Art of Hygge. Steven Johnson Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World. 7 p.m. Diesel, 2419 Larkspur Landing Circle, Larkspur. Edward P. Jones The Pulitzer Prize-winning author in conversation with journalist Belva Davis following a performance of Word for Word’s “All Aunt Hagar’s Children.” Z Space Main Stage, 450 Florida St., S.F. (866) 811.4111. www.zspace.org. James Dunn Theater, College of Marin, 835 College Ave., Kentfield. 7 p.m. Kepler’s Books and Magazines, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. Peter Orner, Christine Sneed Orner’s “Am I Alone Here” and Sneed’s “The Virginity of Famous Men.” 7 p.m. Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera. Craig Parker “Lions in the Balance.” T.J. Reilly “A Time for Redemption.” 6 p.m. Book Passage, One Ferry Building, S.F. (415) 835-1020. www.bookpassage.com. 6 p.m. Diesel, 5433 College Ave., Oakland. Kepler’s Books and Magazines, 1010 El Camino Real, Menlo Park. Aquarium By the Bay, 2 Beach St., S.F. (415) 835-1020. www.bookpassage.com. Angelico Hall, Dominican University, 20 Olive Ave., San Rafael. San Francisco Grotto Writers “Three Minute Reads.” 6 p.m. Book Passage, One Ferry Building, S.F. (415) 835-1020. www.bookpassage.com. Winter Cookbook Extravaganza Heidi Gobson, Nate Pollak and Irvin Lin are featured. 1 p.m. Diesel, 2419 Larkspur Landing Circle, Larkspur.



Weekend booking: Black Friday at bookstores

Tue, 22 Nov 2016 23:48:28 UT

Yes, you could always spend the day after Thanksgiving in line at a big-box store, waiting to buy the latest electronic gadget that might well be worthless by the end of the Trump administration. Or you could choose to avoid the Black Friday circus and instead linger at a local independent bookstore. There are scores of them in the Bay Area — all visible on The Chronicle’s interactive literary map, at www.sfchronicle.com/theliterarycity — and any number of their books have lasting power, the power to change lives. Also: no batteries necessary. — John McMurtrie



Beat Generation museum open on Thanksgiving

Tue, 22 Nov 2016 20:41:43 UT

From the time the Beat Museum opened in 2003, it has been a small but mighty addition to the eclectic San Francisco museum scene. Located on Broadway at Columbus Avenue, near the epicenter of the 1950s Beat Generation scene, the museum has a collection of Beat memorabilia including letters, manuscripts, books and plenty of information about Beat legends Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. [...] true to the Beat spirit of doing things your own way without compromise, the Beat Museum will be one of the very few San Francisco museums open on Thanksgiving.



‘Moonglow,’ by Michael Chabon

Fri, 18 Nov 2016 20:36:47 UT

(When’s dessert?) But as you mature and grasp that your parents and grandparents are actually real people with rich, complicated pasts, it can be a fascinating experience — especially when long-kept secrets are unearthed. Inspired by the author’s weeklong visit in 1989 to his mother’s home in California, where his grandfather lay dying, the book is both a hotchpotch stroll down memory lane, and an exercise in exploring the slippery nature of truth, memory and what makes a compelling story. Hopped up on hydromorphone, the normally tight-lipped man — unnamed throughout the book — compulsively spills the beans about his past to his grandson Mike, the novel’s narrator, before he dies. At first, the effect is disorienting and, dare I say, frustrating. Because Chabon barrels through by piling on anecdotes from different periods of Grandpa’s life without laying sufficient groundwork — Grandpa’s arrest in 1957 for nearly strangling his boss with a telephone wire after getting fired; the time he and a mate planted live explosives on federal property during an Army Corps of Engineers training session in 1941; his obsessive escapade tracking the V-2 rocket and Nazi aerospace engineer Wernher von Braun across Germany post-World War II — it can be difficult to maintain a firm handle on the narrative. Take his 20-month stint in Wallkill after his arrest, a cushy correctional facility built during FDR’s presidency complete with greenhouses, craft shops and a radio repair workshop. Chabon’s absorbing account of Grandpa’s time there — afternoons spent constructing radios out of cigar boxes; building his first model rocket, an act that leads to a career in the field; sneaking up to the roof to watch a piece of the rocket that launched Sputnik fall from the sky like “an everlasting arc of freedom” — speaks volumes about Grandpa’s strength and character. Though away from his wife and child, his internment at Wallkill seems less like a prison sentence and more like a much-needed respite from reality. Grandpa’s frisky relationship with a buxom neighbor in his Florida retirement community — his first in 13 years after his wife’s death — lends a refreshing integrity to the mechanics of sex as a widowed septuagenarian. Back from the war in 1947, Grandpa first lays eyes on his future wife at a themed “Night in Monte Carlo” event at Ahavas Sholom synagogue in suburban Baltimore. [...] just what is Chabon getting at by presenting his latest work as a “memoir” peppered with real people (von Braun, for one) and real places in the form of a novel?



‘The Attention Merchants,’ by Tim Wu

Fri, 18 Nov 2016 18:20:51 UT

In “The Attention Merchants,” the Columbia Law School professor and New Yorker contributor turns to the enterprise now transacted by many of these information industries — the wholesale grab through content of our eyeballs, eardrums and synapses, and the sale of this “harvest” to the highest bidder to hawk their wares. Wu makes a convincing case that this unfolding story matters even more; cutting to the heart of the human condition by laying siege to perhaps the most precious commodity of all — “the brutally limited resource of our attention.” Other early stirrings of “attention capture”: garish promotional art festooning fin-de-siècle Paris and patent medicine, the perfect petri dish for the black arts of persuasion — an industry peddling products with zero efficacy in which demand was a pure function of marketing and copywriting king. The booking presaged the rise of prime-time entertainment — cemented by vertiginous adoption of TV and the dominion of the “Big Three” networks — as an unprecedented platform for consumer outreach. Through the myriad uses to which we now put it — communication, information retrieval, media consumption, personal productivity — and pervasive access to it, the Internet has massively extended the reach of those seeking to sell us stuff, infiltrating the recesses of existence such that the shower may now be our only sanctuary, as Andrew Sullivan has noted. Wu finds the antecedents of the social networks and clickbait that now suck up so much of our online attention in a celebrity culture fanned by the launch in 1974 of People magazine, reality TV with its anointment of ordinary people as celebrities and introduction of the idea of self as personal “brand,” and the social origins of the Web as expressed in the early popularity of AOL chatrooms. Surveying much of the contemporary Web scene, Wu conjures a dismal, despoiled spectacle — pristine digital commons turned to lurid enervating badland replete with balky ad-infested websites and the lurk of ever more inane clickbait: “the lands of the cajoling listicles and the celebrity nonstories, engineered for no purpose but to keep a public mindlessly clicking and sharing away, spreading the accompanying ads like a bad cold.” Triumphs like subscription-based TV — finally tapping the medium’s potential for long-form immersive storytelling — only serve to spotlight the toll of the attention merchant model, he observes: media’s arrested development in thrall to commercial constraints and the imperative to immediately land an audience for advertisers. [...] while wealthy cord-cutting types — for whom “advertising [has] become one more avoidable toxin in the healthy lifestyle” — now inhabit an ad-free fastness, this likely represents only a temporary stay against attention merchants’ depredations, Wu warns.



‘Swing Time,’ by Zadie Smith

Fri, 18 Nov 2016 18:05:58 UT

To her surprise, the speaker shows a clip from “Swing Time,” one of her favorite movies as a child, to illustrate his theory of “pure cinema” — which he defines as an “interplay of light and dark, expressed as a kind of rhythm, over time.” Right up front, the author has given readers a sneak preview of what she’s up to in this agile, propulsive coming-of-age novel: an “interplay of light and dark, expressed as a kind of rhythm, over time.” “Swing Time,” her first novel written in the first person, follows two “brown,” biracial childhood friends over decades, tracking the rise and ebb of their friendship and fortunes as they shimmy on the fringes of the musical entertainment industry, either in pursuit or support of stardom. The unnamed narrator ushers us from her public humiliation in 2008 back to a neighborhood dance class in 1982, when, at age 7, she was first attracted, like “iron filings drawn to a magnet,” to an exceptionally talented but not particularly nice girl named Tracey, who “looked like a darker Shirley Temple” and “had rhythm in individual ligaments, probably in individual cells.” The narrator doesn’t share Tracey’s gift for dance, but she has what turns out to be a much greater advantage: a more stable home, anchored by her nurturing but unambitious white father, a postal worker, but galvanized especially by her brilliant, politically engaged, Jamaican-born mother, a wonderfully drawn character. “Swing Time” dances between Willesden Road in N.W. London, the West End theater district, New York City and an unnamed West African country where the narrator’s Australian-born, ghostly pale boss, a phenomenally successful, hard-working but capricious pop star named Aimee, has decided to build a school for girls. The book’s title, like the novel itself, works on many levels, referring not just to the Fred Astaire movie and the dance moves the girls study so intently, but to the way time swings from present to past and back again, between memories and the events they color. The narrator’s repeated trips to oversee the African Academy’s construction in a remote village with no running water and just a single electrical outlet expose her cultural naiveté and allow Smith to ask questions about how far our moral responsibility extends. [...] although fascinated with contrasts between black and white, Smith confronts many complex, ambiguous gray areas — including “diaspora tourism,” cultural appropriation, well-meaning but politically tone-deaf aid that inadvertently fans the flames of radical Islam, and controversial racial distinctions in music.