My Summer Reading 2013

It was a nice, if fairly uneventful summer (excluding a very pleasant early June trip back to the old stomping grounds in Nueba Yol, various family events, a fractured rib, and other sundries).  I did get a fair amount of reading done, especially of the non-directly-work-related variety.  And so, to close one door and open another, I’ve detailed the fruits of my reading-vacation below.  What this list doesn’t include: various heaps of scholarly articles, similarly-themed books, books that I’ve forgotten, and all of the back issues of Hot Rod magazine that I managed to catch up on.  For some of the items below, I’ve included a short, often randomly inspired comment or two.  (Plot summaries, discussion questions, and prefabricated essays will cost you extra.) Enjoy!  I sure did.

Fiction:

Seed, Rob Ziegler  (A solid, well-written post-apocalyptic novel that bogs down a bit amidst the narrative machinery.)

LoveStar, Andri Snaer Magnason (One of  the most enjoyable reads of the summer: a deadly serious yet often hilarious, fantastic, touching, dystopic account of big data’s mastication of human life.)

Galveston, Nic Pizzolatto (A worthy attempt to upgrade the hard-boiled genre.)

Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (Oh, tovarich!  A conversation with my life-long-ladyfriend compelled me to pick up Bulgakov’s masterpiece again, thirty years after it first ensnared me.  Once again, the master works his magic. 

Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Celine (After knocking on the first door on Memory Lane, I felt compelled to revisit that scarier, darker house next door.  And, as usual, I can’t believe how many new rooms and denizens I discovered on my second visit.)

Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America, Brian Slattery (The first of two Slattery novels on the list.  Some have labeled him an acolyte of Pynchon.  And he is, but a deviant acolyte.  I ended up preferring this earlier novel to his latest – -see below.)

Angel Baby: A Novel, Richard Lange (Another effort to upgrade the hard-boiled.  This one slightly more successful.)

American Rust: A Novel, Philipp Meyer (So, I guess his latest novel is getting some good press.  Maybe this is the warmup act.  Here, ambition unholstered, he takes on post-industrial working-class life.  Kept me wondering if a certain kind of realism is really up to that task anymore.)  

The History of Vegas, Jodi Angel

West of Here, Jonathan Evison

Love Like Hate: A Novel, Linh Dinh (My colleague Isabelle Pelaud recommended this one.  The writing is incredible, the narrative architecture fascinating, the engagement with history scary and compelling.)

Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins (To be brief: despite a promising setting (the depleted dreamland of the American West), a disappointing first collection of short stories.)

The Yellow Birds: A Novel, Kevin Powers

The Mirage, Matt Ruff (I really dug Ruff’s earlier madcap, prodigious Sewer, Gas and Electric.  His latest is akin to Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union and Lavie Tidhar’s excellent Osama: A Novel.  Ruff’s hyrbridizes Chanbon’s alternative history police procedural to Tidhar’s murkier alternative history nightmare.)

The Coldest Night, Robert Olmstead

Lost Everything, Brian Slattery (Second Slattery novel of the summer.  Though good, this one made up in solemnity for what it lacked in verbal snap, crackle, pop.  A bit like a mashup of the two roads – - McCarthy’s and Kerouac’s – - with a sprinkle of H.G. Wells’ WoW.) 

This Is How You Lose Her, Junot Diaz  (Friends seem to either love or hate the latest installment of Diaz’s reinvented Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  I think I prefer the earlier Drown because it’s less assured.)

Tenth of December, George Saunders (The inestimable David McCormick turned me on to Saunders when he was a twinkle in the New Yorker’s eye.  I have to admit: the earlier, more gonzo Saunders still floats my boat higher.)

The Valley of the Moon, Jack London  (Part of the continuing saga of reading every single word ever typed by Jack London.  We all need irrational, quixotic projects.  Don’t we?)

The Assassination Bureau Ltd., Jack London (See above.)

Leviathan Wakes, James Corey (Epic sci-fi space opera prose spectacle anyone?  Game on!)

The Kings of Cool, Don Winslow 

California Girl, T. Jefferson Parker (Sorry.  History repeats itself first as tragedy and then as comedy: California neo-noir continues to struggle in the shadows of giants like Chandler, Cain, Hammett, etc.) 

         Zombies

Exit Kingdom, Alden Bell  (Bell’s – - aka Josh Gaylord’s – - follow-up to his first lovely zombie novel, thoroughly celebrated in one of BiB.net’s first posts.  An excellent prequel to The Reapers Are the Angels, and Bell once again sets the standard for taking the zombie-as-literary-possibility seriously.) 

The Last Bastion of the Living: A Futuristic Zombie Novel, Rhiannon Frater (I’m going to confess: this one and the following are Kindle reads.  And, in most cases,  I’ve only included the “first book” in what are usually a series of books.  This is true pulp fiction – - both in terms of the medium and craft.  The prose style is on par with your average eighth-grader’s book report; though usually pretty simple-minded, the plots can become quite enchantingly convoluted in pursuit of complication; the characters are more like Ikea coat stands to support action and dialogue.  Still, taken en masse, there is a lot of cultural dreamwork here.)  

Exodus (Extinction Point series), Paul Antony Jones

Day by Day Armageddon, J. L. Bourne

The Dead Years – Volume 1 (A Post-Apocalyptic Thriller),Jeff Olah

Double Dead: Bad Blood, Chuck Wendig

Zombie Patrol (Walking Plague Trilogy #1), J.R. Rain, Elizabeth Basque

My Last Testament (Zombie Books of Survival), George Milonas

Arisen, Book Two – Mogadishu of the Dead, Glynn James, Michael Stephen Fuchs (Is this the one that records the all-female Somalian assassination kick squad cavorting around the world?  Probably not.  But that brilliant invention is definitely buried somewhere in the zombie-themed stack of bytes on my Kindle.)

The Remaining, D.J. Molles

Apocalypse Z: The Beginning of the End, Manuel Loureiro (Fun, spanish rewrite of Matheson’s I Am Legend.)

Poetry:

Slow Lightning, Corral, Eduardo Corral (Can you say “mindblowing”? In spanglish?  This is soul-squeezing poetry.  Buy it.  Read it.  Throw it from the top floors of skyscrapers.  Feed it to your children with milk and vinegar.  Etc.)

Non-fiction:

The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries, Kathi Weeks (An American political scientist takes Italy’s autonomist marxist heritage seriously.  The prose remains trapped in American political science – - but the re-reading of the autonomists proves fertile.)

To Save Everything, Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, Evgeny Morozov (A notch above the usual “Overthrow the digital overlords!” rant.)

Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice, Kevin Cullen, Shelley Murphy (Who could resist reading this as Boston’s favorite Cain stood before justice?  No charges of over-complicating things here.  By-the-numbers journo account of Bulger’s bloody wake.)

The Purple Decades: A Reader, Tom Wolfe  (I’m trying so hard to appreciate Wolfe’s “new” journalism.  I am.  Really.)

Punk Rock: An Oral History, John Robb, Lars Fredriksen

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth Hardcover, Reza Aslan  (The religion prof takes down one of Fox News’ talking heads on-air.  Professional courtesy demands that I buy and read the book.)

Networked: The New Social Operating System by Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman

Immaterial Labor, Precarity, and Recomposition, Edna Brophy and Greig de Peuter

The Immaterial: knowledge, value and capital, Andre Gorz (One of Gorz’s final books and evidence of the unstoppable power of human intellect.  Period.)

Cheever: A Life, Blake Bailey

A Thousand Machines, Gerald Raunig

Monsters of the Market: Zombies, Vampires and Global Capitalism, David McNally (The current popular zombie fixation holds the key to unlocking the deep, dark secrets of our enthrallment to capitalist domination.  Yes, some days, I’m almost sure.  Dave McNally’s book offers qualified support for my misty intuition.)  

All for a Few Perfect Waves: The Audacious Life and Legend of Rebel Surfer Miki Dora, David Rensin (The quintessential SoCal surf rat and prototype for future punks everywhere.  A surprisingly good and rich bio of Da Cat.)

Voodoo Wave: Inside a Season of Triumph and Tumult at Maverick’s, Mark Kreidler

MOOC’ing towards Bethlehem: California Embraces Online Ed

“UC Online Courses Seen as Inevitable,” blurts the title of an article in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.  Flanked by Governor Jerry Brown and “three rising stars in the world of classroom-free courses” (more about that quartet later), UC President Mark Yudof predicted at yesterday’s Regents meeting that future UC students will take 10 to 15 percent of their courses online.  Calling the shift to online education “inevitable,” Yudof declared: “It’s no secret that UC has hit a wall with regard to traditional education.  The finances no longer exist to support the old model of instruction.  It’s not the time to be timid.”

And so it shall be remembered generations hence: Wednesday, January 16, 2013, will forever mark the passage from O.M. I. (old model of instruction) to N.M.I. (new model of instruction)!

Gov. Brown, CSU Chancellor White, SJSU Pres. Qayoumi, and ubiquitous Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun

This week, California has been trying really hard to launch the age of the N.M.I.  On Tuesday, Brown presided over a press conference to announce a deal between San Jose State University and Udacity, a for-profit MOOC mill.  (Also present at the announcement were Tim White, CSU’s new chancellor, and Sebastian Thrun, Udacity’s co-founder).  The week before, Governor Brown’s proposed 2013 budget included $125 million dollar increases each for the UC and CSU systems, along with an extra $10 million for each system to develop online courses.  And, around the same time, the UCLA campus hosted a conference, titled “Rebooting California Higher Education,” that featured among others: Daphne Koller, one of the founders Coursera (another for-profit MOOC mill), Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom, and (yet again) Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun.

Obviously, it’s MOOC madness month in California.  But, I’ll save the discussion of MOOC’s themselves for a later date.

Paul Klee, “Angelus Novus”

For now, I want to take a closer look at UC President Yudof’s declaration of inevitability.   The cluster of recent Brown-inspired and -sponsored higher ed events certainly feels like a SuperStorm T.I.N.A. (“There Is No Alternative” – - Maggie Thatcher’s famous rhetorical pandybat).  Indeed, a TechCrunch piece on the San Jose State-Udacity deal was modestly titled: “How California’s Online Education Pilot Will End College as We Know It.”  Faculty here in California – - and perhaps elsewhere – - are right to feel uneasy about this fatal attraction among State, Silicon Valley capital, and university administration.

For reassurance sake, let me introduce a couple of possibly helpful principles.

First, the inverse law of institutional dis/order.  In other words, the further you are from the experiential reality of institutions, the more order you perceive within institutions. The greater the distance, usually measured vertically, the more legible (and hence manipulable) institutions appear.  (I’m cribbing this principle, more or less, from anthropologist James Scott’s magisterial, Seeing Like a State.)

Let me illustrate this law by counter-example.  Living deep within institutions, nothing ever seems inevitable.  Sure, technology surrounds us.  New tools for collecting, ordering, and analyzing texts offer powerful new insights.  Social media can powerfully reshape teaching and learning.  But, have you ever tried to get a digital humanities course into a department’s major curriculum?  Technology may (or may not) be) inevitable but getting things done within institutions requires lots of labor, negotiation, tacit understanding, personal relations, timing, schmoozing, local knowledge, and patience.

Change can only appear inevitable to those who dwell far away from this complicated, dynamic, messy reality.  In fact, a recognition of this reality encourages a corollary to the inverse law of institutional dis/order: rather than elucidating the fate of institutions, declarations of inevitability more usually publicize a  disconnect from the inner life of those very institutions.

Second possibly helpful principle, the ironic law of technological revolution. (At the risk of immodesty, I’m cribbing this principle from my own blog!)  The gist of this principle is pretty simple: always suspect the opposite of rulers bearing revolution.  Our cultural myths surrounding technology associate it with change, disruption, and novelty.  Technology “disrupts” and, typically, disrupts utterly.  As cultural historians like David Nye and Vincent Mosco have suggested, our infatuation with the millenial powers of technology reconnects us, perhaps, with a deep, rich mythos of American exceptionalism, opportunity, and freedom.

In any case, technology’s cataclysmic powers, it’s ability for instance to separate the epoch of O.M.I. from N.M.I., are indeed mythic.  Technology may transmogrify business to the “speed of thought,” but it’s still business.  Technology disrupts in order to sustain continuity, especially the continuity of profit, power, and status.  In fact, as Harry Braverman argued long before the dawning of the era of N.M.I., capital depends on technology and technological innovation to sustain itself.  This ironic law, whereby institutions or systems are saved through destruction, prompts us to formulate a corollary hypothesis: those who most loudly trumpet the inevitability of change through technology are often those most committed to the status quo, when that status quo is defined in terms of power and hierarchy.

Thus, a further, more daring hypothesis: technological “revolutions” most often preserve power by increasing powerlessness.  (In relation to MOOC’s, this hypothesis has been explored from various angles, and more and less explicitly, by folks like Ian Bogost, Keith Hampson, and Cathy Davidson.)

A simple question offers a more concise way of illustrating this second principle: online education may herald a New Model of Instruction, but how come it hardly ever heralds a New Model of Administration, or a New Model of Governance?

Finally, the really important thing is this: inevitability is never a fact, it is always an argument.   The goals of this argument can be various, but they almost always cluster around issues of power.

And, the most important fact about online education and educational technology is simply this: thousands and tens of thousands of faculty are already, and have been for more than two decades, experimenting, testing, remaking, and variously tinkering with technology to reshape teaching and learning.  Faculty have been anything but timid in these efforts.  And, inevitably or not, this hot mess of creativity and innovation is where the future of education lies.

 

 

“I am NOT Adam Lanza’s mother (or father)”

Since its inception, I’ve reserved this blog for “paranormal” phenomena in teaching, learning, and higher education.  Today, however, I’m going off-reservation.

By now, most of you have read Liza Long’s gut-wrenching essay about living with and loving her emotionally volatile, thirteen year-old son.  (You may have also read some of the “controversy” surrounding her widely-circulated blog post.) Long’s essay was inspired – - if that’s the right word – - by the obscene events at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Despite its title, the blog post is really a plea for help for parents with “mentally ill” children: “This problem is too big for me to handle on my own,” she writes of her son, who has been variously diagnosed with ADHD, autism spectrum, oppositional defiance or intermittent explosive disorder.

Without a doubt, parents like Liza Long need help, and kids like her son, Michael, need help.

However, as the father of a sixteen-year old son diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), I have to tell you that Long’s essay delivers an outrageous disservice to kids like mine, to parents of non-neurotypical kids, to the enormous energy and labor of those in the ASD “community,” and ultimately even to the non-ASD, neurotypical world.

Here’s why.

First, some basics.  We don’t know that Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook killer, was ever diagnosed with ASD (or the more particular variant of ASD called Asperger Syndrome).  We do know that the media has reported the rumor that Lanza had Asperger Syndrome.  We also know that the media has spent more time misinforming us about the events in Newtown than reporting actual facts.  In the absence of facts, Long’s blog post only helps to sensationalize, and so to mystify, the very meagre connections among ASD, mental illness, and violence.  The more than 2 million Americans directly affected by ASD deserve better than to be fed into the media’s relentless echo chamber.

Second, even if Lanza had been diagnosed on the autism spectrum, autism is not a mental illness.  I need to repeat that: autism is not a mental illness.  Autism, or the more recently-termed ASD, is a word used to describe ”a range of complex neurodevelopment disorders, characterized by social impairments, communication difficulties, and restricted, repetitive, and stereotyped patterns of behavior.” In other words, ASD belongs to a broad family of disorders that includes: Alzheimer’s, carpal tunnel syndrome, dyslexia, Guilllain-Barre syndrome, and Parkinson’s.  ASD is not the same as or intrinsically-related to mental illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, etc.

Why is this distinction important?  First, it matters to ASD’ers.  Imagine that you were affected by dyslexia but were viewed as mentally ill.  Imagine how that would change the way you were treated by friends, colleagues, medical professionals, and institutions.  Second, once you understand this difference, you might understand some ASD behaviors – - repetitive movements, social difficulties, conversational fixations, etc. – -  a little more clearly and humanely.  And, you might understand that, although their brains work differently than yours, kids and adults on the spectrum are no more prone to violence, crime, delusion, or sociopathy than you are.

From my non-clinically trained perspective, serial and spree murderers must suffer some horrible condition.  However, to use “mental illness,” as Long does in her piece, to connect ASD with homicidal violence is – - putting it as lightly and politely as I can – - abysmally stupid, irresponsible, and injurious.  In fact, if my son’s experience is at all typical, ASD kids and adults are much, much more likely to be the victims of violence – - in the schoolyard, on the street, and even in the home – - than the perpetrators of violence.

So, Long’s declaration of solidarity and identity (“I am Adam Lanza’s mother”) rests on a whole series of shady, wrong, insulting and  - – given the heated rhetoric developing around Sand Hook – - potentially very damaging illogical leaps and turns.

But, putting aside all of these problems, let’s take a look at the declaration of solidarity itself.

“I am sharing this story because,” Long writes, “I am Adam Lanza’s mother.  I am Dylan Klebold’s and Eric Harris’s mother.  I am James Holmes’ mother.  I am Jared Laughner’s mother.  I am Seung-Hui Cho’s mother.”  Even as a symbolic statement, I have to say that this is just utter bullshit.  Why?  Because neither Liza Long, nor you, nor I can ever begin to imagine the guilt, shame, and remorse experienced by these parents in the aftermath of their respective tragedies.  Because this kind of conflation demeans and diminishes the pain each of these parents experienced, and continue to experience, in the wake of their childrens’ actions.  And, because the only solidarity this statement proposes is the empty but infinitely elastic status of victimage.  Pity me, the now famous “I am Adam Lanza’s mother” epithet declares, because my son done me wrong!

Here’s how I answer Liza Long’s cry for help: “I am not Adam Lanza’s mother (or father)! And . . .to hell with pity!”  I don’t need help because I’m the parent of a potential spree killer.  Parents of ASD kids and adults need help because their children must live in a world that constantly misunderstands them (often by equating ASD with mental illness) and consistently punishes them – - via peers, schools, bloggers, etc. – - for their differences.

In fact, I refuse to ask for help, divine or otherwise; my son and I refuse to be victims.  We simply demand the legal and human right to equality.  And, that “we” is important, because we (and not just the talking heads of the media-entertainment complex) are already talking.  More importantly, that “we” includes all of those autonomous communities of solidarity that are organizing, mobilizing, and struggling against pity and fear – - and for self-understanding and equality.   This is no small task, and it harbors its own, particular amalgam of disappointment, hope, anger, joy and all those other emotions familiar to every parent.

Let me ask you this: given the work ahead, who has time to pretend to be somebody else’s mother?