Category Archives: Books

Surveillance: From Barbed Wire to the Invisible Prison

Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
You’re invisible now, you got no secrets
To conceal.

Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”

Ubiquitous means being or existing everywhere at once. A novel word for a commonplace idea. We now accept the idea that surveillance is ubiquitous, even though we commonly, and romantically, associate it with the world of stealth and spying, as in popular novels and movies of the James Bond or Jason Bourne variety.

Its reach is much broader than that.

I posted on CIA, surveillance and paranoia the day before the revelation that “contract” employees at the State Department accessed the passport files of Barack Obama and other presidential candidates. “Contracting” of course means “outsourcing,” which means the likes of Blackwater and Halliburton and its subsidiaries, the client states of administration officials and lobbyists. The State Department claims it was simply innocent curiosity – before they’ve even investigated. And little chance we’ll see the results of the investigation soon. It is essentially the same claim made on behalf of the Patriot Act. Communication surveillance is directed at terrorists; honest Americans have nothing to fear. I don’t “fear” anything, but I have no illusions. If information is there to mine, the roving political operatives in either party will mine and exploit it for political purposes.

Surveillance is pervasive. I recently ran the 2008 Portland Shamrock Run and a few days later received an email with a photo of me captured mid-race (and laboring mightily) that I can purchase for a fee. I can’t reproduce the photo here without violating intellectual property laws (as if I’d want that hunkered huffer-puffer figured-forth in this space). I assume the photographer was able to identify me by the timing chip I wore on my ankle. I don’t recall that I gave race officials permission to use me commercially in this way, but I imagine it is there somewhere in the entry form fine print. This is likely as “innocent” as surveillance gets. Cameras are everywhere and we now have the capability if not the political will or federal funding to create virtual borders. It is not, finally, that we are being tracked. It is that we are now effectively captive to technology and the paranoid will to use it in order to maintain political order.
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CIA, Harold L. Humes and Harry Mathews

He didn’t tell me much about CIA’s modus operandi that I hadn’t heard already, but I did learn about the generally accepted laws of intelligence organizations. The basic rule is that if something can go wrong, it will. Applied to information from the field as it was read in supervisory offices, this means: “When something can be misinterpreted, it will be.”

Harry Mathews, My Life in CIA

We don’t keep secrets these days. We don’t want to be told things that should be kept secret. We don’t joke (especially in airports); we don’t pretend. We don’t pretend to know secrets. Secret agents among us pretend to be something they’re not. Secret agents often pretend to be what they think secret agents should be. And we assume we’re stalked, watched over, listened to by agents so invisible they don’t need to pretend to be secret. We don’t know what combination of places frequented, things read or words used on a cell or the internet will trigger the profile that becomes the secret we do not know we keep. So, what if we happen to be paranoid?

doc_humes_1968-fullinit_.jpgCheck out Rachael Donadio’s essay on Harold L. Humes in the New York Times Book Review, February 24, 2008. In the early 1950s Humes founded The Paris Review with Peter Matthiessen and others and wrote two highly-praised novels, The Underground City (1958), about post-World War II spies in Paris, and Men Die (1959), a story about African-American soldiers on a U.S. munitions base in the Caribbean. Called “Doc” by friends, Humes was a cultural touchstone in New York in the ‘50s and ’60s. He even managed Norman Mailer’s run for mayor in 1961. But he became increasingly paranoid. He believed the CIA was out to get him. It turns out, in fact, that his friend Matthiessen did work for the CIA, using The Paris Review as cover. Humes’ last years were defined by mental illness and odd behavior and he never wrote another novel. He died in 1992.

Humes’ daughter, Immy Humes, has made a documentary film about his life, and his books have been reissued by Random House. I haven’t read them, though I’m planning to do so. But I have another reason for bringing him up. Reading Donadio’s essay I thought of a superb book I did read a couple years ago, Harry Mathews’ My Life in CIA: A Chronicle of 1973 (Dalkey Archive Press, $13.95).
Continue reading CIA, Harold L. Humes and Harry Mathews

Looking for something that works

It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.
— Epictetus

images-3.jpgA week ago, I sat in on a lecture by Roger Martin, dean at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. The talk, sponsored by the Portland branding/design firm Ziba Design, was in the open atrium/auditorium at the Wieden+Kennedy headquarters in the Pearl District. There were W+K and Ziba people in the audience, but lots of other people, too. I noticed the head of a Portland arts organization, for example, and a couple of members of a prominent local law firm.

The epigraph above comes from the beginning of Chapter Six of Martin’s book, The Opposable Mind, which was on sale in the atrium and doing a brisk business with the crowd, it seemed, though perhaps less brisk than the table of pastries. It’s a nice quote, and above all a practical quote. Which describes Martin’s book, too, because it describes a practical approach to problem-solving.

And that’s what I found so interesting. We have reached a point of such bureaucratic stasis in our national life (both business and government and everything in between), of such stalemate in our way of thinking about problems, that what be commonplaces to followers of good old-fashioned John Dewey pragmatism, are taken now as new developments, creative breakthroughs. Martin’s idea is that our most successful leaders are able to look at competing ideas, take the best elements from them and come up with a newer, better idea.
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Thompson, Delisle, Sacco and comics non-fiction

panelsoba.jpgThat’s Joe Sacco, to the right, looking out of the window in a restaurant in the old part of Sarajevo. As usual he is passive — listening to the stories that other people tell him, observing life around him and presumably taking notes, though in this frame, he doesn’t seem to have a notebook with him. He looks a lot like a — journalist. Oh. There’s no drawing pad, either. And that’s what usually separates him from other journalists: He is recording conversations,
observations, scenes AND he’s drawing them.

By this particular moment in War’s End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-96 (2005, Drawn and Quarterly Books), Sacco has drawn and interviewed his subject, Soba, a lot. He’s also drawn the streets of Sarajevo, the insides of clubs and restaurants and apartments. He’s proven to be sympathetic to Soba’s account of his combat against the Serb nationalists attempting to defeat the Bosnian independence movement — he’s listened, he’s drawn, he’s located himself in the narrative. And something wonderful has happened: We’ve gotten to know Soba.
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Robert Creeley: “Selected Poems, 1945-2005”

creeley.jpg The rhyme is after
all the repeated

— Robert Creeley, “For W.C.W.”

Black Mountain College, nestled in the mountains of eastern North Carolina, was small but thrived on its own terms for the 30 years it existed from the mid-1930s to mid-1950s. And thrives, perhaps, in memory because of the storied avant garde careers of teachers and students who took a turn there: Willem de Kooning, Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller and Paul Goodman, as well as a cluster of poets that included Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Denise Levertov and Robert Creeley (1926-2005). Creeley’s Selected Poems, 1945-2005 (University of California Press), edited by Benjamin Friedlander, has just been published, a microcosm of 60 years and some 60 volumes of work.

Creeley was inspired by jazz and abstract art and in fact collaborated with musicians, photographers and artists on various projects, a legacy of the communal atmosphere at Black Mountain. Creeley and other Black Mountain stalwarts were part of the “New American” poets anthologized by Donald Allen, but while they were associated with the Beats, they had their own clear path, a more reserved, austere form of verse that was innovative and experimental nonetheless.

One of my favorite Creeley poems is not included in Selected Poems, perhaps because it seems to be a shade romantic and sentimental. Here it is, “The Woman”:

I called her across the room,
could see that what she stood on
held her up, and now she came
as if she moved in time.

In time to what she moved,
her hands, her hair, her eyes, all things
by which I took her to be there
did come along.

It was not right or wrong
but signally despair, to be about
to speak to her
as if her substance shouted.

I read this poem in 1966 in a collection called For Love (1962),” and copied it out in my literary treasures notebook for Mrs. Wheeler’s senior English class. This was a different kind of love poem. No lips like cherries, cheeks like roses, hair like fine-spun gold – the verbal cornucopia that turned woman into an Acrimbaldo portrait. This was a real flesh and blood woman who stood across the room, held up, as it were, but not on a pedestal. The line break “what she stood on / held her up” still floors me. A simple, elegant poem, it tickles the mind and stirs the blood.
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Part four — Joe Sacco’s extreme journalism (extremely good)

For the intro to this series click here. Do the same for Part two and Partthree.

cover War’s End, by Joe Sacco
Both Craig Thompson (even in the looser diary format of Carnet de Voyage) and Guy Delisle follow comic book conventions. In Thompson’s work they show up in the idealized women, for example, the relative inexpressiveness of the faces and in the representation of himself as a Woody Allen kind of character usually underdrawn compared to the rest of the characters. Delisle’s Pyongyang reads even more like a comic — lots of frames per page, action (what there is!) moving along linearly, and his own self-depiction is VERY cartoony: none of the other characters is so unnaturalistic.

Sacco lives in a different world — War’s End: Profiles from Bosnia 1995-96 wants to demolish the acceptable boundaries of comics, the affect of most Sacco books. The subject matter is grimmer. The drawings act as though they want to spill off the page. Words can fill huge chunks of space. (There are moments in Carnet that resemble Sacco’s work: Thompson has cited Sacco as an influence.) I like the subversion and the obsession with getting it right: We interpret it immediately as “seriousness of purpose,” and I accept it as a reasonable account of what happened, especially the events that Sacco witnessed directly.

Continue reading Part four — Joe Sacco’s extreme journalism (extremely good)

Part three — Guy Delisle: How empty is it?

For Part Two on Craig Thompson, click here. The introduction is here.
Pyongyang detail
Like Carnet de Voyage, though less explicitly, Pyongyang: a Journey in North Korea is a journal of a trip. In this case it’s Guy Delisle’s business trip to North Korea. Delisle, a French Canadian, worked for a French animation company, which farmed out big chunks of the actual animation to North Korea (Delisle says that Eastern European studios also get lots of this sort of work). Basically, the North Koreans take their cue from the the “key” drawings in a movement sequence and fill in the drawings between them. Delisle supervised their work.

But animation “experiences,” though informative (think about the whale rendering passages in Moby Dick, except shorter), don’t occupy many of the frames of Pyongyang. Instead, Delisle records the life he finds in North Korea. There is one very great difficulty to this: He must be accompanied everywhere he goes by a guide and translator. And he must stay in an almost empty hotel for foreigners, which is cut off from the rest of the city. So the book takes us on a series of excursions, some more impromptu than others, as Delisle attempts to get closer to the “real” Korea than the government wants him to get. If anyone has a complaint about loneliness, it’s Delisle, but he rarely mentions it. Instead, he works on his guides, trying to trick them into an admission of some kind or get them to take him somewhere off-limits. They seem pretty tolerant, even friendly in a distant sort of way, but they are NOT going to fall for Delisle’s tricks.
Continue reading Part three — Guy Delisle: How empty is it?

Graphic novels, what’s in a name?

If someone asked me the impossible question, “What have been the most important works of art produced in Portland in the past 15 years,” I’d probably stall for time and then include Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Craig Thompson’s Blankets on my list. Most of that has to do with the quality and the startling originality of both books. But some would be because their art form, the “graphic novel,” is in its infancy and good work therefore has more influence on it.

cover War’s End, by Joe SaccoAt this point, the standing of the graphic novel as an art form needs no defense. It might need some definition, though — some of the best of what we call “graphic novels” aren’t really novels at all, by which I mean simply that they aren’t intentional fictions. They are journalism or memoir or a hybrid of the two. Sacco’s Palestine is a case in point and so is Thompson’s Blankets, one an account of two-and-a-half months traveling in the Middle East and the other a memoir of growing up in an evangelical Christian family.

So, with the purpose of taking the novel out of “graphic novel” and replacing it with… something else, I’m proposing a three-book, four-part excursion into a particular combination of text and drawing. And this introduction is Part One. Not to worry: The parts will be short.

Neither Palestine nor Blankets is on the docket. They’ve been described a LOT (even I have written about Palestine before). But both Sacco and Thompson are. French-Canadian cartoonist/graphic memoirist Guy Delisle also figures. In the three books we’ll consider, these artists share a few things in common:

1) They give a “true” account of what they witnessed and felt. I don’t mean true in the sense that a novel can be “true” to life. I mean that they explicitly hope to convey what they’ve seen and/or experienced.

2) Their accounts are in first person. We know exactly where they stand in the narrative and in relationship to the people they are representing in text or pictures. Often we can place them literally: Just outside the frame of the drawing, near enough to make out the details we see. Other times, they have drawn themselves into the frames.

3) Their own shifting states of mind figure prominently: They tell us how the way they are feeling or thinking might affect the narratives we are reading/viewing.

4) Although their drawing aims and intensity levels may differ, their visual images are at least as important as the words. In fact, we might be inclined to contest some of the text, knowing what we know about the limits of reporting and interviewing, but the drawings of all three are immediately convincing, despite their different styles. The drawing don’t just convey information, either, they create a felt world for the reader/viewer.

As we look at the work — Thompson’s Carnet de Voyage (2004, Top Shelf Productions), Delisle’s Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (2003, Drawn and Quarterly Books) and Sacco’s War’s End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-96 (2005, Drawn and Quarterly Books) — we’ll keep an eye out for how they do “journalism” and memoir, what problems their methods generate, what in the end makes this form and their individual descriptions of life important. The observation that this sort of graphic non-fiction shouldn’t be called a “graphic novel,” isn’t new, of course (see Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics, p. 62, for example). But maybe we’ll figure out what to call them, once we look at a few in detail.

The Echo Maker: The Positive of Richard Powers’ Thinking

Writing is the act of accepting the huge shortfall
between the story in the mind and what hits the page.

– Richard Powers

richard powers photo Richard Powers is a real test for readers in this day and age. His novels aren’t especially difficult but they are long and they do make you think. And once you taste the waters of any of his nine you’ll want to drink them all in. I’m still captivated by the cover of his first, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, with its photograph by August Sander that forms the basis for the interrelated stories of three Dutch and German stepbrothers on the eve of World War I, a computer techie in contemporary Boston, and the narrator P., who discovers the photo in a Detroit museum and brings it to life with research and imaginative musings. The novel tells the story of photography and how it has documented the brutalities of the twentieth century in a way that makes previous centuries’ horrors we only read about a little less real. But Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance is also a very personal and affecting story.

Powers’ background in physics, computer programming, music and English studies finds its way into his novels in very intellectual and sophisticated forms. He is one of the smartest writers I’ve ever read, but it is the emotional core of his novels that is so amazing. I wouldn’t miss his appearance at the Literary Arts special event, Thursday, March 6, at 7:30; Portland Art Museum Fields Sunken Ballroom, 1119 S.W. Park Ave. Tickets are $15.00: www.pam.orgor 503-226-0973.

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Bully pulpit: One more punch to the theatrical chops

“Why do I feel it is important to impress upon young readers their right to freedom of speech? Because so many of them don’t know they have freedom of speech. I’m not sure their peer group leaders give them freedom of speech. And I do know that the school library of the school they attend is under heavier attack than the public library just down the street. I think they are in the thick of the battle and many of them are not aware of it.”

Richard Peck
Newbery Medal-winning novelist, quoted on

If the kids at Sherwood Middle School in suburban Portland didn’t know they were in the thick of the battle, they found out with a thud last week. As Oregonian writer Maya Blackmun reported in two excellent stories — Feb. 21 on the uproar, Feb. 22 on the outcome — you can think what you say but you can’t always say what you think. At least, not from a school-sanctioned stage.

In brief: Principal Anna Pittioni postponed the winter play, “Higher Ground,” after last-minute complaints about its contents by parents of a few students involved in the show.

And that content was?

Continue reading Bully pulpit: One more punch to the theatrical chops