"A girl was never ruined by books," my mother used to say. I've spent most of my life trying to prove that wrong.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Jonas Salk and Philip Roth: the Nemesis

Google opened this morning with a tribute to Jonas Salk, the developer of the first inactivated polio virus vaccine on what would have been his 100th birthday.  I'm old enough to remember polio scares--no swimming, no crowds, no fun during the summer--and the relief apparent on our parents' faces when a vaccine was found.

But it is very easy to forget just what a mysterious threat the disease was, which is one reason it's worth reading Philip Roth's Nemesis now.  The book is told from the point of view of a man who'd been a kid during a polio epidemic in New Jersey during World War II.  His idol and mentor was a teacher who apparently carries the disease to a summer camp before succumbing himself.  Both the narrator, who also get it, and the teacher carry with them years of suffering and struggle post-polio--and its consequences.

The tone is naive at first, as befits the observations of a boy, but becomes increasingly nuanced and philosophical as the story progresses.  Roth says that he doesn't write books of philosophy but the question of responsiblity--and the teacher is haunted all his life by the suspicion that he was an agent of death--and the unfairness of life is paramount.  An example: "He was struck by how lives diverge and by how powerless each of us is up against the force of circumstance. And where does God figure in this?”

One of the things notable about the story is the implicit comparison between mainstream religion (in this case moderate Judaism) and a kind of primitive magic (a made-up Native American ritual that is part of the camp's schtick). Roth seems to be saying that there isn't much difference, in the end. 

Also striking is the way the narrator is able to build a reasonably good life for himself even though he is badly damaged by polio but the teacher remains mired in a sort of noble self-pity.  Roth introduces the possiblity of individual choice and will into the equation.

Polio is a thing of the past throughout much of the world now (only in Pakistan does it seem to be markedly on the increase.) But Roth's novel is a good and deceptively simple read that raises a host of concerns that we all must consider.

That's Salk in the photo on the right, and Roth on the left, in case you hadn't guessed. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

Alice Munro on Fanaticism: the Juliet Stories in Runaway

In this week when two young  Canadian men killed two other ones because, it seems, of misguided ideas about Islam, my thoughts have turned to Alice Munro's compelling stories in Runaway. As it happens, I've re-read it twice this fall and will probably read it at least two times more as my book discussion groups talk about it. 

Three of the stories in the collection tell of Juliet's progress from being the smartest girl in a rural Ontario town to teaching classics in British Columbia, meeting and falling in love with a man on the train, building a life with him that is free of the constraints she felt in her own childhood, and then being sorely disappointed when, after raising their daughter alone after his death, the girl is seduced by a cult.

My bookies have been particularly troubled by these stories.  How can Juliet bear having her daugher run away like that?  they ask.  What a tragedy that the girl doesn't appreciate what her mother has done!  Why would she choose to follow the strict tenets of the group she joins?

That there are no simple answers to these questions is a hallmark of Munro's writing.  She makes us think, after she's led us deeper and deeper into her story, but never tells us what to think.

And what I think is that Juliet was mistaken in depriving her daughter of any contact with traditional spiritual or religious throught.  Her daughter wants to escape this kind of thought control just as Juliet wanted to escape the closed world she was born into.  Better to have allowed a certain amount of that other paradigm into her daughter's life.  Doing that might have made the inevitable separation of parent and child less irrevocable.

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Amazon Kills the Buzz: Krugman on the Effects of the Big On-Line Retailer

I had never heard of monopsony until this morning when I read Paul Krugman's column in The New York Times.  It's the undue power of a monster buyer, as opposed to monopoly which is that of a monster seller.  In both cases, the organization wielding this power can influence price and supply--and in the case of Amazon's monoposony, what we read and even think.

Krugman gives a short summary of Amazon's fight with the French-based publisher Hachette over pricing, and then talks about what this means to readers and writers.  Then he writes: "Book sales depend crucially on buzz and word of mouth (which is why authors are often sent on grueling book tours); you buy a book because you’ve heard about it, because other people are reading it, because it’s a topic of conversation, because it’s made the best-seller list. And what Amazon possesses is the power to kill the buzz. It’s definitely possible, with some extra effort, to buy a book you’ve heard about even if Amazon doesn’t carry it — but if Amazon doesn’t carry that book, you’re much less likely to hear about it in the first place."

He gives as an example two books by recently mentioned prominently in the NYT:  "One is Daniel Schulman’s “Sons of Wichita,” a profile of the Koch brothers; the other is “The Way Forward,” by Paul Ryan, who was Mitt Romney’s running mate and is chairman of the House Budget Committee. Both are listed as eligible for Amazon Prime, and for Mr. Ryan’s book Amazon offers the usual free two-day delivery. What about “Sons of Wichita”? As of Sunday, it “usually ships in 2 to 3 weeks.” Uh-huh."

I'm not sure just what Amazon might be promoting here--are they promoting one kind of right-wing thought over anyother?--but any writer who's had a book effectively unavailable through Amazon knows just how hard it is to fight that kind of non-promotion.  And that's saying nothing about the fact that Amazon sets prices lower than other retailers which mean less revenue for writers whose royalties are based on retail prices.