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Slow Reading

I had a strange experience this summer reading “Can You Forgive Her?” by Anthony Trollope. Like other nineteenth century writers whose work was serialized, it’s a very long book—800 some pages. I had picked it up in a bookstore, a delicious sensation but impractical for me. I have a bad back. How could I possibly carry that tome around? So I decided to download it onto my Kindle, for free I might add. Before I knew it, I had finished the book. I went back into the bookstore to check if the downloaded version—prepared by a group of volunteers—was abridged. It was not.

I keep a jottings book where I write reviews of books and movies. I sat down to write my “Can You Forgive Her Review?” and couldn't remember most of the characters or plot. This was alarming. The book is the first of the Palliser books and getting the first one under one’s reading belt is essential. Otherwise, lost.

Most of the e-reader readers I know tell me they read much faster on their devices than they do when they are holding a print book. Why is this? And is it a good thing?

I cannot answer the first question though I have heard a lot of theories: It takes time to turn the page, the electronic pulse has accelerated our brains, and so on. (If you’d like to add a theory, please comment here, electronically.)

As for the second question—is it a good thing?—I’d have to say, from my own experience, yes and no. Yes when I am reading a nonfiction work for information and perhaps skimming a bit. No when I am reading a work of fiction and want to slow down. I just can’t seem to slow down very easily on my Kindle. And I want to slow down. I need to slow down to savor the sentences, the words, the characters and the plot. I have to force myself to do this on my e-reader. I was very disconcerted at the speed in which I had “finished” the Trollope. Indeed, I hadn’t “finished” it because I didn’t remember most of it. So I went back into the bookstore for a third time, bought a delicious Penguin imprint copy of the book, and reread it slowly.  Read More 
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Pussy Riot Silenced

I went to a conference at the NYU Law School last Friday called “Pussy Riot & Protest; The Future of Dissent in Putin’s Russia & Beyond.” The conference was also sponsored by the NYU Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, The Art Law Society, the Tisch School of the Arts, Department of Performance Studies and the Department of Art and Public Policy. It was an impressive gathering, the second I had attended in one week about the freedom to write, the freedom to protest, the freedom to assemble, the freedom to perform. On the dais: Pussy Riot’s Russian defense team, four articulate lawyers, all of them risking arrest when they return to Russia.

Why should it matter to American writers, artists, lawyers, professors and students that three Russian feminist punk rock artists have been sent to a hard labor camp for two years because they staged a protest performance at a church in central Moscow? Moscow is far away. Russia is not America.

I was struggling to answer this self-inflicted question—partially rhetorical—when a poet got up on stage and declaimed a wild, bold and obscene poem, riffing on the word pussy in the spirit of the Vagina Monologues. That was a show stopper because this bold poet would have been bleeped continually on American television. In fact, the other night when Salman Rushdie appeared on The Daily Show, he was bleeped several times, as was Jon Stewart. Comedy Central is owned by whom? The FCC has these rules because? Our media operates without prior restraint? The articles I have submitted for publication have never been censored/edited to satisfy the advertisers?

So, we live in a Great Democracy where freedom of speech and assembly are guaranteed by our Bill of Rights. True? Partially true? Almost true?

Consider Facebook, for example, which I thoroughly approve of and enjoy. I was skeptical at first—see early blogs back in 2008 and 2009—but no longer. And I belong to an open group where the administrators welcome comments so long as they cheer everyone along. No dissenting voices are allowed to remain as comments; they are deleted. I am always writing dissenting comments and asking questions; they are often deleted. Why not open the conversation? No, not permitted. I find this disheartening. My free speech has been deleted. I have been silenced. Debate on an important subject has been eviscerated.

In the smallest of ways, and at the most local level, all silencing matters.  Read More 
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I arrived at the Union Square Barnes & Noble last night in the middle of a tornado watch. Inside, the crowd waiting for the Salman Rushdie reading was equally restive. They would not be allowed to sit in priority seating—silver folding chairs—if they had not bought Rushdie’s 600-page memoir, “Joseph Anton,” in hardcover at a hefty hardcover price, or downloaded the book onto their Nooks. There were complaints from the press, including this writer, about the policy, as many had downloaded the book onto their Kindle or iPad Kindle Apps. But that was the point: we were not Barnes & Noble customers, we were Amazon customers. And so the discussion continued until the NYPD and beefy private security arrived, not because of the complaints, but because of Salman Rushdie who is still somewhat protected. The B&N staff scrambled to seat those without Barnes & Noble purchased copies of the book into the white folding chairs.

The hostess, a poised and articulate Michiko Kakutani, welcomed all of the seated audience, white chaired (300 people) and silver chaired (200 people), and made a point of saying she’d take questions at the end of the reading from both sections alternately.

I was sitting in the silver chair section next to Pradeep, from Bombay, and a friend of his visiting from Singapore. Both are avid readers and Rushdie fans, but they had to buy two books in order to be seated. “I would have preferred to hear Salman Rushdie read before I decided to buy the book. Or, if I had been charged for the event, I would have paid to hear him read. This policy feels a bit desperate to me,” Pradeep said.

Desperate and coercive, I might add.

Of course we don’t know if there will be any Barnes & Noble bookstores left in a few years and this is worrisome. But the policy of setting up a privileged cohort in silver chairs—first-class customers--is not conducive to customer loyalty. Many walked out of the store unwilling to stand in a second-class line to wait for the white chairs. The atmosphere was exploitative and the staff at the store, though polite, were also defensive. They hadn't set the policy and did not seem trained to handle such a large, demanding crowd.

Finally, the confusion and the grumbling were over. Salman Rushdie had arrived, looking a bit tired after what must have already been a very long day, the day his memoir was released and he had to stand still for photo ops and answer questions, not about the literary merits of his books, but about the reaction of the Islamic world to that infamous, despicable video. He had remained patient and good-natured throughout these interviews; I saw two of them when I got home.

At the podium in Barnes & Noble, he seemed completely relaxed, reading and talking, reading and talking. I have heard him speak several times over the years, but never as eloquently. It must have been a great relief to write this book after nearly a decade of living undercover and then the passage of more years enjoying his freedom, mostly in the United States. Hit men had killed his Japanese translator, shot his Italian translator and his Norwegian publisher, both of whom thankfully recovered. We mustn’t forget the horror of this, a writer targeted by assassins in the pay of a government, in this case, Iran. A shooting war, as Rushdie describes it, and one of the early manifestations of the continuing unsettled relationship between the Arab and Western worlds.

“It is strange for a novelist to acquire a life like a novel,” Rushdie said. “Suddenly there are men with guns in your kitchen. All this makes for a good story, but not for a good life.”  Read More 
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Becoming a Writer Redux

A friend asked me the other day whether I always knew I’d be a writer. I didn’t. I grew up in a family where English was a second language. My family were educated and cultured, they read a lot, but communication between the generations was halting at best. And though there were artistic people in my family, no one had chosen the challenging life of an artist. In a family of refugees, that would have been too risky.

It had never occurred to me that I could express myself in words, orally or in writing, until I got to college. I didn’t enjoy reading that much, either. I was shy, I never kept journals, and I was not self-reflective. As soon as I could get out of the house, I did. I roller skated, rode my bicycle, played stick ball, swam competitively. My primary interest was sport. Fresh air, physical freedom, the entitlement that boys seemed to enjoy. That’s what I wanted.

I went to two colleges and when I finally landed at a third—UC Berkeley, I began to grow intellectually and emotionally. And I met my husband there; we’re still married. He came from a family of writers—his uncle owned the Saturday Review of Literature, his dad was a famous journalist, his brother was a journalist—and he’d been in the U.S. Navy as a journalist. He wrote the ship’s newspaper and also some Billy Budd type short stories. He read them aloud to me and, of course, I thought they were marvelous.

I graduated ahead of my husband and then, ever practical as my parents insisted, stayed on for a post-grad year of teacher training. I have a California State Teaching License signed by Governor Ronald Reagan. It was issued “for life.” And though I later went on to graduate school, that first teaching license has allowed me to enjoy the benefits of a steady income as well as the pleasures of a teaching/writing life. Teaching fuels my writing and gets me away from the computer and the solitude of being a writer. Journalism fuels my fiction and literary nonfiction.

It was during a ten-year sojourn in London that I became a writer. My husband had the GI Bill and was enrolled at the Holborn School of Languages and then at the London School of Economics. I had taken a job in a secondary school in North London and I was in such culture shock most of the time, so heartbroken for the children I was teaching, that all I could do was write about it. Even the interview had been shocking. The Headmaster, a Mr. Bond (I tried not to giggle), told the others on the panel that I was perfect for the job as a remedial reading teacher because I was a New Yorker and knew about drugs. “Isn’t that true, Mrs. Bergman?” he asked. It was a rhetorical question.

On my first day at the school I was escorted to the staff room to wait for the Headmaster to show me around. It was smoky and hot, all the dirt-encrusted windows shut down. The teachers came and went, and then I was alone. The door swung open and there was a little outstretched black hand on the left of the door jamb and a long stick whacking it. This, I quickly learned, was a caning. After it was over—ten whacks, twenty?—the teacher holding the stick dismissed the young boy and came into the staff room. This was a ceremony. He took a ledger off the shelf and recorded the date, the number of whacks, and the infraction. I didn’t speak, I was speechless. Only after he left did I open the book to read what he had written, a Dickensian story.

That afternoon, I went into WH Smith and bought little orange notebooks to record my observations. I carried them everywhere, filling one a week, at least. Conversations, physical descriptions, interviews with my students and their parents. I fell in love with all my students and wanted to help them, somehow. I strung my observations into passionate, first person, outraged narratives. I submitted them and they were published, the beginning of my writing life. My husband had started writing for the London newspapers also and he got me a gig as a book reviewer, an excellent discipline as I had to write within a word count to deadline. Then I got another gig reporting on education and immigrant issues for the BBC. And so it went. I had become a writer.  Read More 
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I first mentioned Jon Lee Anderson last February in a blog about Anthony Shadid, the New York Times reporter who died on his way out of Syria. Both were war reporters. Jon Lee Anderson is now in Aleppo reporting for The New Yorker and, though experienced, I hope he finds his way out of that chaotic, dangerous war zone soon. That said, I’m looking forward to his next dispatch, an apt word to use for a war reporter’s articles. Under siege, protected as much as possible by flak jackets and the soldiers they are traveling with, they find a safe house from which to send their stories to waiting editors via satellite. These stories are not usually written in a quiet study or even a newsroom; they are composed in the field in what is left of human habitation. A far cry from the still sedate 1930’s when wealthy travelers visited a peaceful Aleppo and opened their neatly printed tourist guides issued by “Northern Syria and the Municipality of Aleppo, the “ancient and populous capital of Northern Syria.” Two of these guides are currently on view at the Museum of Art and Design in New York City, quaint collectibles saved by tobacco heiress, Doris Duke. Duke was enamored of the Islamic world which she visited in 1935 on a honeymoon with her first husband. When she returned, she built a Shangri La in Hawaii with artifacts from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Syria. A conservationist and a philanthropist, I am sure she would have been horrified to learn about the destruction of Aleppo, its antiquities and inhabitants. The desecration of human history in museums and archives is a byproduct of these terrible wars.  Read More 
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Political Narratives: The Day I Met Bill Clinton

It was a hot day in mid-July 1992 and the Democrats had arrived in New York for their convention at Madison Square Garden. I had voted in the primary—yes, I am a Democrat—but not for William Jefferson Clinton. I’d read a lot about his tenure as Governor of Arkansas and when I’d learned that he had refused to stay the execution of a retarded man, that was enough for me. Clinton was also a union buster. I believe in unions—though belief is a scary word to use these days—and have belonged to two unions in recent years: the National Writers Union and ACT-UAW at NYU. The National Writers Union is also affiliated with the UAW, a quaint touch, no? UAW: United Auto Workers. At NYU, the union has negotiated salary rises, working conditions, and benefits. Prior to the union, the University, one of the richest in the country, was exploiting its labor—clerical, adjunct, and graduate students—to whose benefit? Not ours.

I wasn’t thinking of any of this on the day I met Bill Clinton except perhaps that he’d also cheated on his accomplished and intelligent wife, with impunity. His spin machine was spinning a new narrative/story which I, of course, did not entirely believe. I wasn’t his Good Wife so didn’t have to forgive him. I voted for Jerry Brown.

It was 7:30 in the morning, dripping hot, and I was trying to run my two laps around the reservoir. I stopped at the water fountains on the track near the Metropolitan Museum and took a long drink. And there was Bill Clinton, dripping hot, at the fountain to my right. Flanked by two beefy security guards, he began running again and so did I. I suppose I was giving chase. Whoopee! But soon lost them, their 8 minute mile to my 10 on a good cool day. So, great, I saw Bill Clinton on the track, I thought. In our celebrity driven culture that story alone would have some cachet at a dinner party. But there was more: When I stopped to stretch at the bars at the 90th street entrance to the track, he came up from behind—yes, dear reader, he lapped me—and, dripping hot, we stretched together—me, Clinton and the two beefy guards. We stood up at about the same time and Clinton extended his sweaty hand. “I’m Bill Clinton.”

“Yes I know,” I said.

Of course I had known this for the better part of fifteen minutes as I was giving chase around the track, but was loath to admit it.

The next ten minutes were quite an experience: No one else around and there I was being regaled by Bill Clinton. I could have been anyone. I could have been wallpaper. I stood and listened. I tried to open my mouth to say something intelligible. I wanted to ask about the retarded man who had been executed, for example. But I was stymied by the spin machine in front of me. Clinton regaled me with rehearsed, exaggerated stories about all he had done as Governor and would do once he became President of our United States. Were the stories fact, fiction or factoid? Was there any difference any more? I had no chance to even voice a doubt. To the very end of our brief encounter, I didn’t have a chance to get a word in sideways. Clinton didn’t ask my name, whether I was a Democrat or not, or whether I had voted for him in the primary. He made good eye contact and was very handsome, however. His sweaty handshake was not slippery, it was strong.

Eventually, we walked down the steps to the bridle path and, as I was about to say goodbye, good luck, bon chance, and so on and so forth, the paparazzi arrived, first in a helicopter, then in cars. They descended, deus ex machina, and then they surrounded. A few more joggers came along, some with babies in those over-sized special strollers and they all hovered and the paparazzi snapped photos. A mature female jogger sidled up to Clinton and slipped him a piece of paper. I marveled at her foresight—to carry a paper and pen with her as she jogged. Perhaps she is a writer, I thought. I get my best ideas on the track or in the swimming pool. Yes, I must carry pen and paper with me from now on, I thought. Enough of bending down to the ash track and scrawling dirt letters on my arm.

Dear reader, this is not a factoid: Clinton took the piece of paper and slipped it into a pocket in his shorts. And though I witnessed this and experienced a political regaling, I voted for him anyway.  Read More 
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