I grew up in New York and all year thought of the library across the street from my childhood with its library flag and librarian who told our four-grade class that Turkish fairytales started with Once there was and twice there wasn’t… This is how I hope we will speak of 2020. I have been lucky where others haven’t, but because I am a human, I don’t feel spared. This may also be because I work at a nursing home workers’ union and the wrongness of what we do to poor people is on full display.
At the height of the pandemic in New York, I desperately missed the city and wanted to move back, but it is still true that I cannot afford to live in the city I grew up in. Some of the books I read this year, I first read there years ago.
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.
After several attempts at age twelve, I succeeded in reading all of Kurt Vonnegut’s novels over two weeks in my late teens. Reading them altogether they became one novel, full of wide-open-beavers, overlooked-novelists, spree-shooters, spaceships, and a deep and sometimes illustrated critique of patriotism, capitalism, and war.
This year, I reread Slaughterhouse-Five and am finally able to separate it from all others. The novel is drawn from Vonnegut’s experience as a prisoner of war during the fire-bombing of Dresden.
Disorientation is common repeated trauma. The simple fact that someone was alive yesterday and yet is not alive today, was in line at the grocery store Friday talking too loudly on their cell phone, and silent forever today, is uncommunicable. This is probably why there are spacemen shaped like toilet plungers from a planet called Tralfamadore. The wide-open beavers and spree shooters, it seems, are in Breakfast of Champions.
Tamara Shopsin’s, Arbitrary Stupid Goal, is a memoir about growing up in an iconic, family-run restaurant in Greenwich Village. It captures the neighborhood of those years, still sheltered by rent-control, and filled with diverse, aggressively eccentric people. At the memoir’s heart is the world created by Kenny and Eve Shopsin, and Shopsin’s General Store, a place where conversation has always been a contact-sport.
In full disclosure, I was afraid to read Arbitrary Stupid Goal when it came out because I knew the place and people well. It is also part of my childhood. But it was an arbitrary stupid fear. The book is magnificent. Shopsin’s storytelling is disciplined and economical; she pushes right up to the edge of a universal truth then leaves you to throw your own self over the cliff. Kenny Shopsin used to yell across the restaurant, “I’m not a cook! I’m a fucking philosopher!” Tamara Shopsin is as well.
Along the lines of philosophy and memory and ethics, I was reading The Essential Talmud when its author, rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, a revered Talmudic scholar, died. One of the things I find beautiful about the Talmud is its devotion to preserving minority opinions. Its referees, the rabbis and sages, settle disputes, but leave room for arguing over the calls, because you may not have the full view; what’s right in this moment of seeing a situation may turn out not to be right. The Essential Talmud is an elegantly organized overview of the Talmud’s history and the types of disputes it takes up.
I also read The Midrash Says: The Book of Beraishis and others in that collection. Like the Talmud, Midrash is set of Jewish texts that underpin Rabbinic Judaism. While the Talmud takes up arguments over the infinite and the infinitesimal though, Midrash reads more like Torah fanfiction. It fills in back-stories and spends time in weird places with side characters; it repairs holes in the logic and answers nitpicky questions from rabbis. Humanity and humor and everyday bad decisions come to light. Where the Torah describes Abraham giving up idol-worshiping, and the Talmud digs in on the parameters of idolatry, Midrash tells us that Abraham’s father was an idol maker—and as we all know, sons often rebel against fathers.
When the stories seem the most reprehensible, Midrash expands into them, adding layers. Abraham simply misunderstood God and he was never being asked to slaughter his son; Hagar was not abandoned and ended up back with Abraham. As if tracing a ghostly body of ethical longing with a human desire to repair and understand, Midrash points toward the story that should have been. It marks, marking all the places where we are uncomfortable with what happened, where the stories we tell ourselves, that we were right, that we did right, don’t add up, responding to generations of questioners asking: How can that be fair?
Everything else I read this year was a “How-To” book, as in, How-To: withhold Labor and topple the robber barons sucking the life out of the working-class of this country. They were No Short Cuts and A Collective Bargain by Jane McAlevey, Upheaval in the Quiet Zone by Leon Fink, and Confessions of a Union Buster by Martin Jay Levitt.
McAlevey’s work in general focuses on the power of the strike, and how to organize a super-majorities of workers militant enough to transform their relationship to capitalism. She has a great critique of “mobilizing” (as opposed to organizing) and shows how the move to advocacy models within unions cuts workers off from their true base of power. So there.
A Collective Bargain opens with a quote from Confessions of a Union Buster, so I went back and reread that one. What union-busters do to people’s minds and lives and relationships is hard to explain with the full force of how it is experienced by workers. The author, Martin Jay Levitt, says it best:
The enemy was the collective spirit. I got ahold of that spirit and while it was a seedling I poisoned it; I choked it; I bludgeoned it if I had to, anything to be sure it would never blossom into a united workforce…
When John Lennon started organizing with the 1972 voter-registration drive to take out Nixon, he began to have elaborate fantasize about the FBI following him and tapping his phone. The FBI was behind every tree, putting people around him that weren’t who they said they were, having fake human interactions because they were infiltrators that had no skin in the emotional game (See: Dwayne Hoover in Breakfast of Champions). But even Lennon thought might just be on a megalomaniacal bender. After all, he was smoking an enormous amount pot that year, and anyway, he was a frikkin’ Beatle – so come at me, man!
Only everything Lennon was imagining turned out to be true. And they were setting him up for drug charges. But knowing he was not crazy, and that what he thought was happening actually was happening, that was worth a lot.
This is how many union organizers felt when Confessions of a Union Buster came out.
The book the describes what had been only felt, a coordinated, campaign of psychological warfare inflicted on poor people to keep them from demanding a $0.25 an hour raise. It demystified the tactics of that only the FBI, or a million-dollar campaign in the hands of experienced union busters can provide.
The story of how the book came to be is also great. Levitt, after decades of crushing the collective spirit wherever he found it, was struggling with alcoholism and hit bottom. As part of his recovery, he had to make amends for being a horrible person, so he contacted the ALF-CIO and asked what he could do to make things right. They didn’t believe him and suspected this was just another devious attempt to ruin workers’ lives. Write a book, they said. Do speaking tours. And he did.
I also skimmed Upheaval in the Quiet Zone this year, which is the story of how the most militant hospital workers’ union in the country began. I reread it because I needed to be reminded that healthcare workers had no collective bargaining rights. They had to strike to get them and all of their strikes were illegal.
In the dreamland between memory and extraction capital, the labor of the workplace and the labor of giving birth, is Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation. In it, there is a plague of sleeplessness. Nightmares scour the psyche of American citizens and people begin to die of sleep deprivation. The nation mobilizes to address the crisis but there seems to be no cure for the horrors plaguing the American unconscious until they figure out how to extract the dreams of babies and inject it into adults. This is where the novella starts. It continues with the genius of all of Russell’s work, weird, original, and offering a deep wisdom into the human experience on every page.
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