A Year in Reading: Marie Myung-Ok Lee

Almost exactly  year ago, I wrote a list of books to read to understand late-stage capitalism for this site, because so much of what’s going on in the world today—Trump, endless wars, climate disasters, the migrant crisis, extreme income inequality—can be tied back to capitalism and yet we have so few books that examine its effects on us who are living in this frenzied late-stage capitalist epoch.

I would have added Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success to the list, but it hadn’t been published yet. On first reading it as a literary novel, the “rich-hedge funder-goes-on-a-journey-suffers-hardship-like-the-Greyhound-bus-bathrooms-returns-having-learned-a-thing-or-two” was a bit of a let-down. The frenetic satirical voice, the similar plot of his older work, Super Sad True Love Story with the older secular Jewish man and the younger Asian woman, grated on my nerves a bit. While other reviewers had praised Lake Success as  a radical departure from the previous, since it dealt with an American-born not immigrant character, I still couldn’t get over the similarity in tone, down to the fact that the older Jewish American narrator, previously “Lenny,” is now “Barry”—which of course rhymes with “Gary.”

But sitting back and taking it in as a whole, and situating it amongst our current cultural and political climate, I realized it is possible to write a novel that seems not fully functional in a literary sense (including with somewhat generic unlikeable characters), but its dysfunction can be, inadvertently or not, precisely the point.

It reminds me, glancingly, of Ha Jin’s masterful War Trash, a “diary” about a Chinese soldier who becomes a POW in a U.N. detention camp during the Korean War. The novel’s deliberately clunky voice (a shock after the lyrical Waiting) made the reading difficult but in the end faithfully convey a non-native’s voice further occluded by the stream-of-consciousness form of  the diary entry written by a traumatized soldier during a war.

Shteyngart’s previous novel, Super Sad True Love Story, was putatively a love story, but I admired it for its look at techno-futurism, eerily predicting the smart phone, skinny jeans, Internet sites like Hot or Not. It was a funny Black Mirror long before there was Black Mirror, and, for something totally esoteric, the author’s a correct and nuanced and untranslated use of the Korean word gijibae (“brat”—used only for women and girls) was pretty cool.

Lake Success, in contrast to Super Sad, dwells not in the near-future but in the real time of a Trump election cycle, rooted in the seeming unending nightmare of our present; to use a contemporary word, it feels like “streaming.” It starts with Barry, the head of a hedge fund, eschewing a private helicopter or other hedge fund modes of transport to head to Port Authority, on the lam from his marriage, his son’s autism diagnosis, the feds who are closing in on him for some shady trades. He hops on a Greyhound and ends up traversing the country with nothing but some cash and a suitcase full of his beloved expensive watches and the vague goal of reuniting with his college girlfriend, with whom he has not kept in touch basically since they broke up after college, when he chose high finance over their relationship. Much of the middle of the book is a picaresque tour of America’s Triumpian interior. Shteyngart ups the stakes of his modern Odysseus journey by subtracting Barry’s phone and credit cards until he lands in a cash-poor situation (at one point begging with a cardboard sign and cup) not dissimilar from that of the average Greyhound bus passenger, citizens of all colors who are sharing the bus ride with him and act as a kind of Greek chorus.

Barry is about as deeply an unlikeable narrator as they come. He judges women on purely superficial bases (his first contact with his wife-to-be is when she admonishes him for ogling her breasts). He is so underdeveloped emotionally it seems he has no Pavlovian responses to anything except thoughts of sex (but not with his wife, now) and money, which, since he has so much of it, he mainly uses to buy extremely expensive rare watches that he dithers over while barely paying attention to his son.

The finance aspect of the novel is that Barry is being chased by the feds for his shady positions his hedge fund takes in “Gastrolux” and “Valupro,” which seem inspired by  the fraud and price gouging of hedge funder Martin “Pharma Bro” Shkreli and the Galleon Group’s Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri Lankan immigrant to whom a director at Goldman Sachs passed insider information. Barry is cheater on his wife and on SEC regulations, but he isn’t so much a Bonfire of the Vanities Sherman McCoy Master of the Universe as a clueless doofus, even though sloppily racist (he thinks his friend Jeff Park is Chinese—a joke recycled from Super Sad True Love Story with the young Korean American woman, Eunice Park: “Chinese women are so delicate”). The only thing Barry knows in his heart is making money (which he continues to do despite the feds) and while he tries to love his three-year-old son, it seems the only way he can do this is through saving his son, who can’t tell time, a special watch to inherit. As he abandons his family and cuts off communication, Barry knows something’s a bit off with him; there are clues he feels might indicate he is “autistic” like his son.

Barry’s world of high finance frequently references Goldman Sachs, where I once worked; Goldman has indeed become part of pop culture, if anything for indelibly fomenting the mortgage crisis of 2008, but I didn’t find Barry convincing as an ex-athlete finance bro. Barry’s default modes are sheepish and full of shame, which are usually not part of a finance bro’s emotional palette, evidenced in how Goldman conducted part of its business at strip clubs and on golf courses. Most of the finance people I worked with were too self centered to have that aching Barry angst or his need to please because they were convinced they’d already “won” via their acumen and merits and the spoils of income inequality.

What makes Lake Success a notable book for this year is less characterizations and plot. Despite the fact that this novel is pushed as a departure from his earlier immigrant novels, it’s almost like each novel has a version of the same protagonist going through different situations, and that his books merely skim the surface of technical and scientific issues while utilizing jargon (China-pegged currency arbitrage, genetic modification, mortgage-backed securities) but in some ways this refractory, superficial style is precisely what makes his work so interesting and original, especially at this time.

While Shteyngart’s “Barry” characters (I’ll call all his anti-hero protagonists  Barry) grope (sometimes literally) their way into their futures, dystopian and not, in between the gross jokes (Barry burps up beer and Domino’s pizza while simultaneously trying to navigate a touching moment with a friend) that rise from the basic—in all senses of the word—plots (love story, road trip story), in Lake Success, we readers can squint to look at the glinting of the over-the-top glass and chrome of these billion-dollar apartments and see, mercilessly reflected back, the attention-deficient, capital-obsessed, atomized, ever accelerating FOMO society that we have become. Even Barry’s liberal-leaning wife, a lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-mom, rationalizes the good living afforded by Barry’s rapacious capitalism and uneasily deludes herself that, as Dawn Powell characterized certain New Yorkers in the ’30s, that with her phalanx of cooks and nannies and doormen, she is still “not idle rich, but busy, good-living, intelligent idling rich.”

What this novel has carved out, as if with surgical scalpel, is the feeling of malaise that in our weird late-stage capitalist epoch, even someone worth 30 billion dollars can feel. Jeff Park the “Chinese” financier peevishly complains that the top of his Ferrari “used to go down in fourteen seconds…but now it takes eighteen. Everything’s a scam.” Barry, likewise, can’t believe it when he finds his ridiculously expensive watch has lost a few seconds. It’s a funny and sad (and maybe super-sad) realization for these one-percenters that money can’t buy them a perfect universe, that having the means to overspend on a consumable good like a watch still does not guarantee its quality—it is a scam—nor does thirty billion versus fifteen billion make a difference in death. Here is where, through a sea of financial jargon sometimes inexpertly applied (and maybe the goobledy-goo of financial jargon is precisely the point), we hit gold.

The feds do catch up to Barry, but it gets resolved in a paragraph or two (no spoilers, here), and Barry’s free to go and he’s not even barred from the industry; at first this seems like “too easy” a plot point, the galloping narrative merely running out of gas. But it continues as an eminently plausible and expected resolution (art imitates life and back again). It therefore makes in a paragraph the point that a thousand studies from the Roosevelt Institute outlining the costs of rescinding of Glass-Steagall (a Depression-era banking reform law) never could, about how we got here, and how we are unlikely to learn from our mistakes, as long as the money-laden people stay in charge.

That pretty much all the upper-income  characters in Lake Success are mild-to-moderately loathsome illuminates the hypocrisies that the people on the “good” side of income inequality have little motivation to change it, even when they are, like Barry’s wife, uncomfortable with some of the moral aspects of it. Barry considers himself a Republican but “socially liberal,” but sees nothing wrong with gouging dying patients for an essential drug because profit and shareholder value is his lodestar. Jeff Park’s father actually needs that drug, and so Jeff is mad at Barry because of it, but Jeff is also glad he, too, is a rapacious Lamborghini-driving financial swell because that way he can afford the heavily-price-inflated drug for his father. Talk about a model minority.

It’s a radical updating of The Great Gatsby as we see Barry smashing up people’s lives, while his cross-country journey gives him plenty of time to think about it and even meet the people impacted by what to him was merely moving numbers around. In our current culture, we privilege business, even though it doesn’t make sense—why do we focus to the exclusion of arts and other sciences, on economic value measured in piles of paper while we despoil the air and water that we depend on to live? Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” isn’t rational and impartial, it’s about maximizing profit; as evidence, as Americans, we might want to consider why all other countries in the world are smart enough to not base their healthcare systems on ours, and the majority have some kind of universal insurance while we, in the so-called land of consumer choice, don’t even had a public option for it. Further, in classic economics, profits would be zero; in a perfect capitalist society because of transparency in costs of production that essential pharma drug should be priced near what it cost to make. Barry succeeds by subverting all of that

The Lake Success of the title is actually a place as well as a metaphor in the book. It is Barry’s green light at the end of the dock, his East Egg, his Rosebud and his White Whale all at once. Why not pack it all into one narrative? Late stage capitalism’s name suggests excess, and also that we are approaching a terminus, as presaged in the title of the excellent early-late-stage capitalism novel (2006), Then We Came to the End. That unless we pivot drastically (“a course correction,” as Barry might say), there’s a black hole waiting as a consequence of our pollution of our environment, of our prizing lucre over life, our worship of paper, of using technology to get rid of inefficiency then discovering that human relationships are remarkably inefficient as well.

Lake Success does take a drastic pivot at the very end (no spoilers!), with a burst of lyricism verging on sentimentality that suggests both beauty and love—and an end.  The way Barry lives is clearly not sustainable, and this is what we learn. In this, the novel succeeds wildly, for what is the role of artist if not to reflect back society to the reader—even, and perhaps especially, if we aren’t going to like what we see?

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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We Need to Destroy the Blurbing Industrial Complex

In 1856, an obscure-ish writer, frustrated by the non-recognition of his newest self-published oeuvre, took matters into his own hands. He sent copies of his book of poems, unsolicited, to the literary luminaries of his day. One luminary, Ralph Waldo Emerson, replied with a polite thank-you note.

“‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career.’ —Ralph Waldo Emerson” was quickly appended—in blingy gold letters—to the back of this book.

This is widely considered to be the first book blurb in the English language, as we’ve documented on the site before. Without it, perhaps Walt Whitman and his Leaves of Grass might have stayed obscure forever (Emerson, however, objected to this manipulation of his private correspondence). Besides poetic genius, Whitman had the marketing instinct of a P.T. Barnum; of course, today we think of him as an American bard, but at the time, he also penned his own blurbable reviews, anointing himself the “American bard at last!” pulling off what Jerome Loving, in his biography Emerson, Whitman, and the American Muse, viewed  “as a slick promotion scheme, done by a man with little sense of propriety.”

Blurbs, the quoted testimonials of a book’s virtues by other authors, are now so ubiquitous, readers expect them, first-time authors stress about getting them, booksellers base orders on them. A blank back cover today would probably look like a production mistake. But while readers heft books in their hands and scrutinize the praise, it should be noted that blurbs are not ad copy written by some copywriter; they are ad copy written by a fellow author. “Ad copy” might be a bit harsh, but maybe not. The “flap copy,” the wordage on the inside flap of the cover of a hard cover, is written by the publishers, to tell potential readers what the book is about but also, of course, to spur a purchase. Blurbs are also there for promotional purposes only, their bias similarly implicit. “Why is this even a book?” I saw in a book review for a tepid memoir that I read in galleys and enthusiastically thought the same thing about. But such an honest negative assessment is not going to make it as a blurb, nor does an author’s effusive praise guarantee that the book has been read. Random people I interviewed for this piece didn’t know what blurbs were—when I asked about their persuasiveness/necessity, most said they thought they were necessary, but then I realized they were referring to the “flap copy” on the inside cover. Most readers I spoke to casually, including my niece, a college student who can’t leave a bookstore without at least 50 pounds of books, seemed pretty agnostic-to-meh about blurbs and mostly ignored them while browsing.

My spouse worked as an editorial assistant at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux in the time before email and the internet, and much of his workday was spent sleuthing ways to get books to authors, sort of like how the court server jumps out from behind the potted plant with the summons. Now, it’s so easy to get ahold of people, manuscripts and bound galleys are flying. It’s not uncommon for well-known writers to receive more than a book a day “for which we hope you will comment,” i.e., blurb. I’ve seen friends’ apartments made small with towers of books, academic colleagues have to do a systems dump, rejected blurb requests piled outside their offices next to a big FREE sign. To put another way, there are around 600,000 to a million new books published per year (depending on what statistics you want to use) but it’s clear this creates a beast that constantly needs to be fed blurbs, which need to be gotten fresh every time; Rick Simonson, a bookseller at Elliott Bay Books, told me about a publisher using “a nice Susan Sontag quote for John Berger long after she’d passed away”—and that wasn’t super effective. Nor, he said, was using general all-purpose blurbs. A book needs a blurb and a good one. Feed me, Seymour!

The publishing industry thus runs on the fuel of free writer labor from authors often unrelated to the publishing house—i.e., unlike the flap copy writer who is paid by said publisher, the blurbing author is contributing to the book but is not the one getting published and paid, all because some guy made a funny promotional jacket for his book in 1905. As a writer whose last novel came out more than a decade ago, I feel like I am Rip Van Winkle-ishly stepping back into a world that has utterly changed—a new industry of independent publicists, the rise of social media—because of the speed at which things happen, short attention spans, distraction from other forms of media, the insta-data of Amazon algorithms, and just as the Grinch would say: noise, noise, noise.

Before I parse the motivational civic/karmic duty of blurbing, let me take you through a blurb process, at least mine. They fall into roughly three categories.

The ideal: the editor (or author) emails or calls to ask if I’d be interested. If I say yes, she promptly gets me the manuscript, gives me a deadline a few months in the future. I get a big thank you when I turn it in, and months later, the published book arrives with my blurb on it. It’s kind of cool.
The okay: usually a smaller indie press wants a blurb for the book and the ARC (advanced readers copy); being less organized/staffed, they give me the impossible deadline of a week. I will do the blurb but have already missed the first deadline, so there are bad feelings and disappointment already attached to the project.
The terrible: the editor calls and if I assent, informs me they need the blurb right away, like in a day or two. That tells me they are getting closer to publication date and panicking because the author doesn’t have enough blurbs or the hoped-for famous blurbers fell through, so they are asking a novelist who hasn’t published a novel in a decade—i.e., I am being called from the B- or C-list bench (it makes it worse when they effuse—”You would be such a get”—I’m not Jodi Picoult), then exhorted to blurb really fast, and that’s irritating on all fronts and often burdensome. These requests are also historically the ones most likely to end up with my blurb not being used, either because of disorganization or maybe a last-minute famous person came through. Add to the spiritual trouble if I don’t even get a copy of the book I went to a lot of trouble to blurb.

The value of the labor of blurbing is not as trifling as the word “blurb” would suggest. Thomas Mann opined that writers are those for whom writing is more difficult than for other people. I worked for years in research at a big investment bank, and even while needing to express in mathematics how the price/equity values of one company versus another made it a buy/sell/hold, I couldn’t bear to leave a dangling participle or a superfluous comma for a dependent clause.

Reading a book to blurb is of course much more fun. I find writing blurbs, like writing student recommendation letters, to be a joyful and simultaneously fraught task. Primarily, it’s nice to be asked, it’s a joyful thing to have a book come out, it also feels a bit like a civic duty to expend whatever social capital one has (it’s free!) to help another author along.

The fraught part has to do with the scarcest of resources for all of us: time to do our own work. See, I’m not an ad-copy writer, but I must write a squib that will make the book sound exciting, not give up any spoilers, explain what the book is about in a dozen words, and most importantly avoid blurb clichés—”passionate, heartbreaking”—because those would signal insincerity and thereby make the blurb and all my hard work useless. In other words, I have to deploy some of my best writing chops for a blurb. I am not alone. Poetry books need blurbs, too, and poets have an attentional relationship to language that makes blurb writing even more fraught. Poet Adrienne Su tells me, “I read the whole book and think about it a long time, and it’s still a struggle not to sound generic. Being a poet—at least, being in the majority of poets, who aren’t famous—involves too many sacrifices to put your name on anything without care.”

Further, a nuclear arms race in blurbing is building. Besides the plain blurb, there is now the “pre-blurb” that goes onto the advance readers copy and is used as a kind of literary chum to attract more blurbs. There’s even a pre-pre-blurb for a manuscript to wear when it goes out to the market. That’s a lot of blurbs for one book making it through the system.

Yet what’s up with the blurb writers? Who is the Author Lorax who speaks for them?

Back when my physician father still held out hope that of his four children, I would be the one to become a doctor, I questioned the ridiculousness of the days and days of no sleep during internship and how it didn’t make any sense, for the interns or for their patients. The best he could come up with was that he did it, so I, and other young doctors-to-be should, too.  An unconvincing blurb is not the equivalent of a fatal drug interaction prescribed by an overtired intern. But without examination, the beast grows and needs more food more frequently, and is anyone keeping track of what’s happening? At what point will it be deemed ridiculous, at the pre-pre-pre-pre-blurb stage? And who will be doing it?

Who are these authors, the blurbers? Many are simply friends of the author with the forthcoming book. There are generous authors who blurb a lot of strangers, but, given time constraints, don’t read the books terribly carefully. Then there are the super-generous authors who take many hours of reading and writing to craft a blurb; these fastidious authors are driven by a pride in their blurb work. I also read the books in their entirety, but I’m driven more by fear there’d be some literary Rickroll inside the book, precisely at the place I’d skimmed. Or I’d call it “a gripping tale of World War I” when it was actually a novel about World War II, and my mistake will be public as long as the book is in print—you get the gist.

But for either kind of generous stranger-blurber, time is a problem. Some people might run out their lifespan if they actually read every book they blurbed. Gary Shteyngart is the Joyce Carol Oates of blurbing, but he’s quite candid in telling me that he does not carefully read every word or even finish the books he’s been asked to blurb, but avers anyone who does “should be given medals and grants.”

Yet other authors feel it’s part of the social contract to read every word before providing a blurb—but there’s no ethical guidelines about this at all. Some readers feel that having an author’s friend or teacher blurb (e.g., they can see the name come up again in the acknowledgments) is cheating, reflecting a perception that blurbs should be somehow pure, unbiased endorsements for a work. They might be interested in the story of an author who told me that he’d been thrilled to secure the promise of a blurb from a famous writer—who then, because he was a busy and famous, asked the author to Walt Whitmanishly write the blurb himself and he’d affix his name upon it. These readers who presume purity do not realize that blurbing is largely driven by connections and that blurbers may gush about a “book of the century” while merely operating within the loose confines of “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Some people say if an author blurbs too much, this reduces the “value” of the blurb. Shteyngart good-naturedly tells me I can call him a “blurb whore.” But I think of it more in terms of overblurbers and underblurbers. The overblurber is generally just a generous person who wants to help other writers; most overblurbers I spoke to had clearly set standards for commitments: e.g., student work, authors of color, underappreciated authors and presses, which all but guarantees a heavy blurbing schedule. The underblurber, however, can be an author with some social capital who could help other authors with a blurb but pointedly refuses, even for what I would call a slam dunk case, e.g., a student—often because he blurbs “up” but never “down.” It’s a free country, but I also give up my seat on the subway for the elderly even though I am not contractually obliged to.

In general, I will say that blurbs are a blight on the publishing industry, both for people seeking blurbs and the writers asked to blurb. I’m thinking of the swath of time and productivity of editors, agents, publicists, writers being sucked into the blurb machine. And while it can drive sales, as it’s meant to, it doesn’t necessarily do readers a favor. When I am asked to blurb, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking, “Is this book worth the readers’ money?” Even if I wrote an honest blurb—”Save your money and buy some Raymond Carver instead of this lukewarm imitative collection”—the publisher isn’t going to use my PSA.

On the other hand, when I genuinely love an author’s work, or even if it’s problematic, or not fully formed, or I just hope to see more in the future, blurbing is a material way to donate my time to help a fellow writer eke out a living, especially if they are a debut author and/or publishing with a small press. Novelist Chris Castellani goes so far to say he thinks of it as “a sacred act—you are putting your name on a work of art, and your name will forever be associated with that work. So it’s a big responsibility.” But he has also encountered the downside of acting as a cog in the grinding wheel of the blurb factory, “which is why I have to say I do get frustrated when I write one, and I get barely a thank you from the author or the editor. It’s a certain kind of entitlement”—one that many writers find difficult.

Newly minted MacArthur fellow Kelly Link, who runs Small Beer Press with her husband Gavin Grant, has insights from both sides: “As a writer who has greatly benefitted from the word of mouth that pre-publication blurbs can provide, as an editor and publisher who hopefully sends out galleys of books that I adore to writers that I adore in the hopes that they will have the time to read and say something, as a reader who is sent far too many excellent books in galleys and feels both an obligation and a feeling of dread because of the tight deadlines that blurbing often requires … it’s immensely gratifying to be given the chance to read new writers, and to have a chance to say something about how much I’ve loved their work. But it’s also impossible to keep up.”

Viet Thanh Nguyen is Shteyngart-level generous with his blurbs, but I asked him, as an academic, fiction and nonfiction writer, contributor for the New York Times op-ed page and others, a mentor, a in-demand speaker, a parent, etc., how he does it all, especially as he makes the commitment to read through every book he has agreed to blurb. Blurbing time indeed cuts into artist production time: “I get very little of my own reading done, which is to say books that I think will help me with my own writing. This is distressing to me.”

Besides the macro effect on the literary output of those luminaries who are called upon to blurb, there is another aspect invisible to readers in the game of blurbs: The playing field is highly skewed toward certain subsets of writers: people who know people, people who live in New York and actively participate in its literary/publishing scene. Also, graduates of MFA programs, as they have well-known writers as faculty to ask for blurbs, this baked-in aspect of MFA programs (which themselves have hierarchies) becomes a system of exclusion in itself. And people who have powerful agents and editors of course have many more avenues of access. This uneven system is mired in issues of race and class and thus can be part of a self-perpetuating cycle that is deleterious—and invisibly so—for the less well off, the less connected, and those far away from the city.

Kelly Link, who is a delightful presence on twitter (@HasZombiesInIt, also @SmallBeerPress), tells me that even for books she loved in galleys, she often couldn’t make the blurbing deadline, and “I’m much happier just recommending books to readers on Twitter when they [Twitter followers] ask for something to read and tell me the sort of thing that they like.”

Maybe readers (and publishers) could declare not an end, but maybe an armistice, in the arms race of blurbing. I, for one, would rather have another Kelly Link short story instead of a blurb. The writer Geraldine Brooks, herself a generous blurber, said, “I stopped asking for blurbs after my first novel, preferring just to go with pull quotes from reviews about previous books”—clearly, her career has not been hampered by this restraint.

Of course, the system can’t change overnight. Bookseller Pamela Klinger-Horn of Excelsior Bay Books and Valley Bookseller says that bookselling “is such a tough market that anything helps. I don’t see blurbs going away anytime soon.”

As an author, however, I can make decisions about my book. Will I have the courage to lessen the load for my brethren and go through publication blurb-less?  Would my publisher even let me?

Image: iStock

Trump’s Got Mail: About Those Great Love Letters from Kim Jong Un

At a campaign rally in West Virginia over the weekend, Donald Trump alternated between bluster over the Brett Kavanaugh nomination and starry-eyed musing over his surprising new relationship with North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. “We fell in love,” Trump said. “No really. He wrote me beautiful letters. They were great letters. And then we fell in love.”

Trump’s declaring love for one of the world’s most notorious dictators is another first, but the idea of receiving magical and strange letters from North Korea is nothing new.

One of my memories growing up was of receiving letters from North Korea.

Both my father and mother are from what is now considered North Korea, my father from the capital city of Pyongyang, my mother from a smaller village further north called Pukchung. Although the North/South Korea split is easily accepted as a given by Americans, my parents grew up in a unified Korea. One that, also, didn’t split itself. The defeat of Japan by the Allies meant that Korea was freed from being its colony. But instead of allowing Korea to proceed as a sovereign nation, U.S. officials, after a half-hour’s pondering without even a map in the room, decided to split the peninsula roughly in half at the 38th Parallel, handing over control of the top half to appease Russia.

Stalin installed Kim Il Sung, the originator of the dynasty of dictators; Kim Jong Un is Kim Il Sung’s grandson. In South Korea, the U.S. military installed Syngman Rhee, the Princeton-educated strongman. This haphazard division placed 16 million Koreans in the American zone of “South” Korea and nine million in the Soviet zone of “North” Korea. The Korean War, which started only five years later, separated families further, especially with the establishment of the Demilitarized Zone, a buffer zone, 160 miles long and extending about one and a quarter miles from the Military Demarcation Line on each side. The city of Kaesong, for instance, was in South Korea from 1945 to 1950, but then ended up on the north side of the new Military Demarcation line and is in North Korea, even though it is below the 38th Parallel.

Today, we have families wrenched apart at the U.S. border with Mexico, itself also a line resulting from a U.S. war. Trump’s new infatuation with Kim Jong Un reminds us that more than half a century ago, another American-led partition resulted in something for which a new word had to be invented in the Korean language: i-san kajok, “separated and scattered families.”

The letters my father received were purportedly from his brother, who had remained in North Korea after the war. I remember that after they arrived, my father would often be moody and gloomy for days. American-born, I had little conception of what Korea, North or South, meant to me. My older brothers, who loved to play Risk, excitedly reveled in the mystery of how these letters found us in tiny Hibbing, Minnesota. Even more, the handwriting was unfamiliar, the voice in the letter strange enough that my brothers remember it today, paraphrasing: “Hi Dr. Lee, this is your … uh … brother. How are you??? Can you send some money?” Once, there was even a picture enclosed, but the picture was so blurry, it was impossible to discern if that really was his brother. If it indeed was, he, the younger brother, looked 20 years older than my father. The letters perennially asked for money—which my father sent, even though my mother didn’t want him to.

I wish these letters hadn’t become lost (we’ve never found them after my father’s death) because I was so young at the time I didn’t realize the weight of what those letters contained. In my childhood years, my parents preferred to never speak of Korea at all, no matter how much I badgered them or even used the excuse of a school project; both parents would say some version of “You were born in America—you are American.” Korea became for me an imaginary planet, and given the obvious discomfort from both parents whenever it was even mentioned, this planet orbited a disreputable past. I wanted to know about Korea so I could understand why we were so different from the blond Scandinavians in our town—like when a cat also raises a baby raccoon amidst its litter. Something so strange has to have a big story behind it. The kids (and some adults) called us Japs and Chinks, but even my parents never suggested we stand up and say, “No, Korean!”

“How’d your parents end up in northern Minnesota?” When I went to the East Coast for college, people seemed equally curious and startled by my background. I’d have to shrug and say, “I don’t know.” I knew my parents had come to America as Korean War refugees, and that’s about all. The best I’d ever gotten out of my father was the Korean proverb, “When whales fight, the shrimp gets hurt.” This didn’t quite jibe with the Horatio Alger/model minority story that had been fed to me my whole life, not necessarily from my parents but from admiring teachers and other adults. We were the American Dream.

My parents similarly had little conception of themselves as “North” or “South” Koreans. Koreans had always been People of the Han Kingdom. The White-Clad People. The Land of the Morning Calm. Not unlike the migrants of today, shortly after the partition, my mother as a teen was sent south by herself for safety, where she became permanently cut off from her immediate family; my father’s parents sent him to Seoul for his education and he was to some degree stuck there with onset of the Korean war. My mother’s cousin, still in their village in North Korea during some of the worst fighting, hopped a transport to the south at his mother’s behest to keep from being conscripted. He left promising he’d return in a week when the fighting in the area died down. He never did. You can multiply this story by hundreds of thousands of families who never asked the U.S. to split their country but have to live with its consequences, every day.

What is the result for the American-born daughter? I know my father’s mother’s name, Ahn Kyung-sook. But my mother says she can’t remember her mother’s name. I don’t know if she means she can’t or won’t. That it means something to her that she won’t share with me, or maybe a Pandora’s box so tightly sealed it should never be opened. It makes me think of all the family tree projects in school where my classmates had grandparents and great-grandparents. My tree had a single leaf.

My parents were “North Korean” not by political affiliation but by geography alone. They would have been happy to live on with their families in their homes; that they are immigrants has less to do with the pull of the U.S. than its rude push, the establishment of this line that made them refugees not once but twice. The line that has kept them from ever seeing their families.

That is why these letters, while almost silly to us kids in their fakeness, to my father were something else. It was the only tangible representation of his family that he had, whether its authorship was fake, or not.

When I was a Fulbright Fellow living in Seoul, my father had made the third trip trying to go back to North Korea with a medical group. Conceptually, I understood that he had to fly via China, not Seoul. But it seemed so odd to already be here, 35 miles away from the DMZ, while my father had flown from Minnesota all the way to China.

As the one non-white doctor in his entourage, and a Korean no less, for the third time he was mysteriously denied a visa even for charity medical work. The other doctors flew on to his hometown, Pyongyang. My father showed up at my apartment in Seoul much earlier than expected. He was completely dejected—drank a lot, insisted on going to tiny, out-of-the-way restaurants that served a specific kind of spicy noodle dish with sliced skate on top—North Korean style. He died at his own hand a few years hence, broken in many ways.

In 2009, despite the news of two journalists being detained in North Korea and the various missile tests, I jumped at the opportunity to accompany an academic group into that place that had been the background of the biggest mysteries of my childhood. Through some sleight of hand with our visas, I even managed to bring my elderly mother along. I hoped to finally get some more clues about this part of my background, especially through my mother’s eyes. But it turned out not to be possible. Pyongyang, like Seoul, had been bombed into oblivion during the Korean war and had been rebuilt in the grandiose Stalinist, not Korean, style. My mother, also, had grown up in a town further north and hadn’t ever been to Pyongyang until now; the college students in our group looked to her eagerly, expecting her to reminisce about “North Korea,” but there wasn’t anything to reminisce about. It would be as if the U.S. had been split into north and south along the Mason-Dixon Line and then people excitedly wanted to ask me what memories being “back” in the North, in Des Moines or maybe Toronto, were like.

Almost coquettishly, Trump keeps the contents of his letters from North Korea a secret. The letters to my father represented sorrow, hope, and, probably saddest of all, a willingness to suspend disbelief. When I was in high school, I recall my mother talking about how very distant relatives in China had passed on word that the brother in North Korea had passed on. Again, there was no way to confirm this. And not long after, yet another letter in that strange handwriting arrived, asking his dear brother for money to buy a TV. These letters continued coming for years. And yes, my father kept sending money into the void. My father did it for love. I’m not sure what this “love” for Kim Jong Un is that Trump is talking about. But he might want to consider, also, the ambiguities of where his letters might be coming from, who wrote them, and why.

Books and Mortar: Eso Won Books in Los Angeles

I dislike car culture so much, it’s rare for me to actually agree to drive to anything when visiting Los Angeles. Except maybe for Roy Choi’s Kogi tacos.

And to visit Eso Won Books, a unique and charming bookstore in the historical Leimert Park neighborhood. The store recently made a cameo in an episode of HBO’s Insecure, the L.A.-based series by creator and star Issa Rae, who comments, as her alter ego Issa Dee, “it’s like my favorite place, ever. They support a lot of up-and-coming black writers.”

At Eso Won I was greeted by the affable James Fugate, co-owner of the store with Tom Hamilton, who was behind the register. James had such a wide-ranging opinion of so many interesting reads, I ended up leaving with a pile of books—novels, nonfiction, children’s books—as did some of the family members who accompanied me. Ta-Nehisi Coates has called Eso Won his favorite bookstore in the world—it has something for everyone, including the writer who has done the sad bookstore signing where barely anyone shows up: In 1995 they hosted a young writer with a new memoir, and only about eight people showed; they ended up moving the chairs into a campfire type circle and had a nice intimate chat with the author … Barack Obama reading from his book Dreams from my Father. Obama and Bill Clinton have since done signings at the store (held at an off-site location, since the store is fairly small), as well as Maya Angelou, Misty Copeland, and a variety of local figures.

“It was a good signing,” James remembers. “[Then] in 2006 Obama told Random House that with the Audacity of Hope book he would only do our store.” Although unfortunately, “It was a big event and our co-sponsors didn’t have us listed anywhere or even on stage. Even now the Museum that it was held at says they hosted Obama, but no mention of Eso Won.”

Yet they go on.

I asked them some questions about the store and

The Millions: What was the genesis of this amazing store? Are you the original owners?

James Fugate: We started in 1988, I was working as a bookstore manager for Compton College where I meant Tom Hamilton and third partner, and he’s moved to Maryland. Tom and Asamoa wanted to start a store and I met with them to talk about it.

They passed on starting a store, as I thought it would be very hard to generate business, but as the manager of the Compton College Bookstore I had developed a great selection of Black books as general reading material for the students and I was being asked to come to various community functions to sell books on the weekends. The bookstore was run by Barnes and Noble’s college division and I felt very uncomfortable coming to Black community functions and representing Barnes and Noble. So I came up with the idea of selling on my own with Tom and Asamoa on the weekends.

Tom and Asamoa had the seed money to start buying the books and I had the ordering knowledge to put the concept together.

TM: What does Eso Won mean?

JF: Eso Won means Water over Rocks. Asamoa and his wife had visited Aswan, Egypt, and the African name is said to be Eso Won. We had the saying for some time that as water flows over rocks, so does knowledge flow through books.

TM: Who are your main clientele?

JF: Our customers come from Central L.A. for the most part, mainly where most Black people live. But we also draw from all over the city. We were able to benefit from many many L.A. Times stories, plus amazing book signings.

TM: What do you like most about being a bookseller? What’s the most surprising thing?

JF: For me the most surprising thing about being a bookstore is meeting customers who love your suggestions. I love talking about books that really move me and seeing people respond to those. Seeing people respond to emails for new books that we like is another plus. There’s a $200 signed Obama photo book coming this November and we’ve sold 20 just from our emails. It just blew me away.

TM: Who are your best/worst customers?

JF: The best customers are just the good people with pleasant attitudes. The worst are the many, many nutcases who come to our store and signings. Both Tom and I are just sick of them. I could write a book on the many incidents we’ve had over the year with customers and authors. I would write the book, but I need a co-writer. Trust me—we’ve had more than our share.

TM: What are some of your recommendations? 

JF: Chokehold by Georgetown Law Professor Paul Butler may be the best book on race I’ve read since The Psychopathic Racial Personality. As a college student I struggled to understand hate. Blacks, Jews, Asians, Indians and Latinos all seemed to be feared by far too many white people. Psychopathic helped me understand why.

Chokehold is the first book I’ve read which gets racism today. Plus Paul has very workable ideas on solving issues related to mass incarceration and other issues.

TM: Are you yourself a writer?

JF: Tom, Sam (Tom’s son), and I are not writers at all. I would like to be, but writing is hard work.

I don’t have many favorites authors right now. Walter Mosley is one, but some of my favorite books are The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley, Chester Himes—all of his books, Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, Locking Up Our Own by James Forman Jr.; Democracy in Chains by Nancy MacLean is outstanding, a roadmap to the insanity of the right.

TM: I always ask the booksellers to recommend another bookstore. What’s yours?

JF: I love The Last Bookstore in downtown L.A. Their motto is, “What are you waiting for? We won’t be here forever.” Just about any used store is a favorite.

TM: Any last thoughts?

JF: Last thing: Books have knowledge and reading books gives you knowledge and power.

What’s in an Author Name?

If I’m gonna tell a real story, I’m gonna start with my name.
—Kendrick Lamar 
Not unlike George Herbert Walker Bush, my full legal name, as it reads on my birth certificate, has four pieces, not the usual three.
Marie Myung-Ok Grace Lee.

People assume Myung-Ok is my middle name. But it’s just my name, one that was benched, like a junior varsity player, for my entire childhood, and then revived–but not for the reasons one might think–when I needed an “author name” for my novel.

When my parents came to the U.S. from Korea in 1953, one of the first things they did was choose “American” names. Grace for my mother; my father loved William, partly for its Will-I-Am, Seussian pun. He never understood why people subsequently shortened it to “Bill,” which kind of ruined everything.

Being a Korean War refugee/Korean immigrant in the 1950s was a rare thing, given the racist U.S. immigration laws that barred Asians. Pivotal to their new American life was a doctor with the World Health Organization, whom my father worked with at a liaison office during the Korean War. His name was Leonard Schuman, his wife was Marie, which is how my brother came to be Leonard and then I, following, am Marie.

My first big publication was an essay in Seventeen when I was still in high school. I don’t remember being asked or consciously choosing how my name would appear, and it is listed simply as Marie Lee. But for subsequent publications, including a slew of young adult novels, I asked to  use Marie G. Lee to include my mother (even though “Lee” is a surname for both parents).

I now teach in college, to students who grew up with my novels, and I’m always touched to hear about what they mean to young readers. However, the first time an actual young reader came up to me and said, “You’re Marie G. Lee,” which I heard as MarieGEE Lee,” I wondered who this MarieGEE she was so enthusiastically searching for was, and almost turned around to look before I realized she meant me. Being called by this name felt as weird as referring to myself in the third person. I had an eerie sensation of the person I was to the reader—Marie G. Lee—separating from the person I was to myself. Marie G. Lee was an entity, while I was a person.

Appropriately, I then put Marie G. Lee as my name on my boilerplate speaking contracts and soon noticed that I, Marie, was a better advocate for this Marie G. Lee when it came to negotiating speaking fees; I didn’t take it as personally. There is a business side to writing, and she was it.

In my 30s, I went to Korea for a year as a Fulbright Fellow to research my next novel. I’d barely passed the oral language test and so my fellowship was contingent on taking language classes, since my project involved taking oral histories of Korean birth mothers.

In class, I started out using my name, Marie, because, well, it’s my name. The only other time I’d had a situational name was in my years of high school German, when my name was Beate.

But soon enough I noticed “Marie” would either be transliterated as “Mari,” which is a place-holder for counting animals, or, what my relatives cheekily used:  “Mori,” which means “head.” The white people in my university Korean class adopted Korean names and wore them proudly, like a costume, so I decided I’d might as well put my official but never-used name to use.

For our Fulbright business cards, the clerk asked for the Chinese-based characters underlying my Korean name. “Lee” means plum tree. Myung means brilliant, Ok means jade/crystal. There was something about writing out the pictographs that made me think about how my father would, throughout my childhood, always indulge me by taking me to the rock and crystal show whenever it came to our town. How he was always so convinced I was “brilliant” enough to be a doctor. How “Marie” was an homage to another person while my Korean name was not only a kind of aspiration and hope my parents had (and weirdly personified in my obsession with clear quartz crystals), the “Ok” was also a generational marker that linked me not only with my sibling (Michelle/Chung-Ok), but with my distant cousin, Soon-Ok, whom I’d only met now, as an adult. We were strangers, but the “Ok” always reminded me of our shared generation in the Lee family tree, that the relationship ruptured by immigration still endured via our linked names.

Leaving Korea, I also left Myung-Ok behind. Nobody in America called me that. I became Marie again and didn’t think about it until, ironically, my Fulbright novel—many years later—was acquired by a publisher. Ever since I’d started publishing, I’d had a sporadic problem of another Marie Lee, a white writer whose Cape Cod Skull Mystery series was quite popular, judging from the fan mail she received, i.e., the fan mail I received. Once, I even mistakenly had one of her royalty statements appear in my mail, which made me wonder if the same thing was happening to her. My agent promptly rooted out the problem—Books in Print, the bible of booksellers, had the IBSNs of two of our books switched. This was also in the pre-digital era, so the mistake would remain until a new edition came out.

My new publisher suggested going forward I use as an author name something beyond Marie Lee and MarieGEE Lee. We agreed Marie Myung-Ok Lee would really differentiate me from the other writer.

That was in 2005, and I have been using Marie Myung-Ok Lee for my “writing” name all this time. There was some question about “consistency,” since I’d used Marie G. Lee as a published name for years, but I decided not to worry about it—I could always go back to MarieGEE, later, but Marie Myung-Ok got some immediate results: First, I stopped receiving Cape Cod Skull Mystery fan mail. But I also realized that just looking at my name, and hearing it, even when people pronounced it incorrectly (Myunk-ok, Myung-O.K., Mee-Yung, etc.) it felt like me, a separation but also an integration in a way I’d never had when I was MarieGEE Lee.

Writers obviously know the power of words, and how naming something sets it on a certain path. Mine was inadvertent, but other writers have named themselves with more intention. Poet Leslie McGrath (Feminists Are Passing from Our Lives) says, “My married name is Taylor and that’s ‘family’ persona, but my writer’s name is McGrath, which was my grandmother’s maiden name. She grew up poor and Irish, never made it beyond high school, and always wanted to write. Each poem and book I publish is a tribute to her.”

“As a hapa [half-Asian], it was hugely important for me to be Karl Taro Greenfeld (True) instead of Karl Greenfeld. The latter made me sound like another male Jewish writer, nothing wrong with that but also not who I am. But, strangely enough, it was a magazine editor who decided to put my middle name on a story I’d written about Japan. I was 25 and hadn’t thought of doing it myself. As soon as I saw it in print, I knew it would be my byline.

Margaret Elizabeth Mitchell (Pretty Is)—not that Margaret Mitchell—says, “I write as Maggie. I do it partly because of Gone with the Wind and partly because I like creating a bit of distance between my selves and my lives. That’s always appealed to me—I used to invent pseudonyms as a little girl, most of them horrible….”

Those who make it up as they go in life and writing find both good and bad in not having a consistent author name. Novelist Randy Susan Meyers (Widow of Wall Street) calls her evolving names, some of them imposed, her bête noire. “I publish under my given name—using my middle name so folks know that I’m a woman. In the U.K. they made me be R.S. Meyers. Legally, I go by my husband’s name. Yet in some places, I am known by my long-ago first husband’s name.

“When I am in a store and they ask my name, I always pause…I wish I’d never taken either husband’s name. But…there are times it’s great to choose who I want to be when.”

Myung-Ok is my first name and so I also enjoy, when filling out fellowship forms, cramming Myung-Ok next to Marie, because that’s where it belongs. Occasionally I’m asked to put it in the slot for “middle name,” but I always refuse: it’s not my middle name. And as the American-born daughter of immigrants, why should I have to bend to the form? Since the racist laws were changed in 1965, there are more and more Asian immigrants and their children also with compound first names. We are Americans. The form should change for us.

And while author’s names need to be individual, and distinctive, the way my generational name connects me to my sister, Chung-Ok, and my cousin Soon-Ok, so, too, I enjoy a connection with other Korean American writers like Nora Okja Keller (Fox Girl) and R.O. (Okyong) Kwon (The Incendiaries), something MarieGEE didn’t do.

Perhaps the author name is also a brilliant tool that should be used as such. Friends and family call me Marie, and Koreans revert to Myung-Ok—but no one uses both. Marie Myung-Ok Lee then becomes the embodiment of my writing, a protective shell that diverts the attention from that overly open, curious part of me that I need to be able to write in the first place. I’m not talking about being fake with an alias, I am talking about being able to engage with people who’ve read my writing, and therefore have a their own relationship with “me,”  which can indeed be startlingly intimate, but a different kind of intimate than in the relationships I have with the people I am close to in my life.

But names can evolve and change. We will see.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

A Brief Late-Stage Capitalism Reading List

What is this late capitalism we keep hearing about? As a pop culture term, it refers to capitalism run amok with its drive for profits over everything (e.g., the United passenger who was beat up and dragged off the plane so the company’s employees could fly). It’s a term often used by Marxist economists (also called Monopoly Capitalism or Late-Stage Capitalism), suggesting the unsustainable nature of purely instrumentalist market-based societies, where success means cutting costs and expanding production in a process that results in constant capital accumulation by the owners of the means of production.  If you’ve ever read The Lorax, you get the idea.

Players (1977) by Don DeLillo
I am continually astonished that this novel is from 1977, and that it’s not considered one of DeLillo’s masterworks. It’s a tone poem involving disaffected elites in New York, a shooting on the floor of the stock exchange, terrorism, and an Occupy Wall Street-type protest. It’s one of the most contemporary (i.e., superbly prescient) depictions of the underlying anxiety of rapacious capitalism—we worship and receive its word as if fixed from a bible, but on some level we know it is neither morally neutral or sustainable.


Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner? (2016) by Katrine Marçal
I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis in economics on “Economic Development and Women’s Labor Force Participation,” and concluded that in developed versus under-developed countries, the end game was the same: women did most of the work, including the never-off labor that does not get counted in traditional economic measures. Additionally, the financial penalties of this unpaid work (family stress, “mommy track” drag on careers, unequal pay due to gender discrimination, etc.), don’t factor into our economic world view because the variables that are “important” in economic models have been mostly decided by men. Marçal does a brilliant job making economics accessible and shows the egregious mistake of excluding women from basic economic market principles, and how this invisibility reinforces inequality.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014) by Thomas Piketty: If you want a meaty yet general-read-friendly book to help explain the severe and growing income inequality in the U.S. (and around the world), economist Thomas Piketty’s book is the one for you. It’s a decade-long exploration (via painstakingly reverse-engineered tax data) of how, in the current industrialized world, rich people work less and earn more because their wealth (real estate, stocks, inheritance, tax breaks) works for them, while poorer people who depend on income—i.e., working at a wage job—desperately scramble to make ends meet in a trickle-down economy. Don’t be put off by the graphs and equations—this book is also a fascinating account of economic history from Adam Smith to Simon Kuznets to Karl Marx and beyond.

Weapons of Math Destruction (2016) by Cathy O’Neil
O’Neil has worked both as an academic and as a quant for a hedge fund, which puts her in a unique position to investigate how computer algorithms (many of them secret and proprietary) and “big data” are part of a new, non-human way to evaluate things like public school teacher performance and hiring prospects. Many of these algorithms, she contends, are based on “poisonous assumptions,” and—surprise, surprise—in aggregate mostly affect and penalize the poor, who have to face the faceless numbers with little recourse, while the rich use their cronyism, nepotism, and old-boy networks to get ahead—all the while pretending American economic life is a meritocracy.

Landscape with Invisible Hand (2017) by M.T. Anderson: For younger readers,  Anderson—who brought us the amazingly prescient 2012 YA novel Feed, where young people meet by  connecting directly to the Internet via their brains—now references Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” in a techno-future dominated by aliens. This book includes  alien nostalgia and misreading of the American 1950s style of dating, and diarrhea pratfalls, and it tackles Piketty-esque inequality:
Almost no one had work since the vuvv came. They promised us tech that would heal all disease and would do all out work for us, but of course no one thought about the fact that all that tech would be owned by someone and would be behind a paywall.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Whose Beach? Our Beach: A Readers’ Guide to Shoreline Access

It’s the waning days of summer, you’ve got your towel, your beach read, your canned rosé in an insulated Angry Birds lunchbox you stole from your child. But the question remains: where to set up camp?

Beaches are getting awful crowded these days, and “beach-spreading” is on the rise; writer Amy Rosenberg of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the canopy-and-BBQ-grill-wielding beach spreaders’ main victims are the “towel-and-a-book minimalists” (her delightful coinage).

Thus, while trying to avoid the point end of someone else’s beach umbrella, you may be jonesing for a little more undisturbed quiet. What can you do if you aren’t New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who famously closed all the state beaches on the beachiest of beach weekends, July 4, citing budget problems, and was subsequently photographed enjoying a beautiful state beach, Gilligan’s Island-style, with just sand, surf, and his nuclear family.

But just as no man is an island, no beach is totally “owned” by someone. Even the famous stars in Malibu, with their yards fronting the beach, can’t yell, “Get off my beach-lawn”—although they’ve tried. Yes, part of that beach belongs to you, Joan Q. Public.

Many people don’t know this, but pretty much every state has at least some version of California’s Public Trust Doctrine that codifies the public’s free access to the beach. California’s doctrine in fact decrees that there is no such thing as a private beach. Even walking in front of, say, Jennifer Aniston’s house (we assume she lives on the beach), there will still be a strip of sand that his public, and often, way more than a strip (often, owners have to grant easements—i.e., more beach!—when they do things like overbuild).

I’ll use California’s beaches as an example because they are plentiful and because it’s an income inequality issue: Los Angeles, land of the outdoors, ranks a pitiable number 74 (behind Reno Nevada!) for access to public park space. Compare that to New York City—-skyscraper town—where I live, which comes in at number seven. So what precious public park space there is, is mostly THE BEACH.

Yet many wealthy homeowners in coastal areas (but particularly wealthy areas like Malibu) actively want to mislead you into thinking you’re the one trespassing  by deploying things like NO TRESPASSING and NO PARKING signs, posting intimidating guards and co-opting local police. I remember doing a writers’ residency where a walk along the seashore was a welcome way to end the day. But one day when I came around a bend that was usually underwater during high tide, I was surprised to see a guard. She told me I wasn’t allowed to walk any further. There was also a huge sign saying the beach belonged to a ranch.

This was not true, I know now. In that state, the beach was public up to the high tide line, and so at low tide, there was a nice piece of beach for me to read on. Even if I hadn’t been aware of these laws, “wet sand” is almost always considered public beach.

Most people are like me and don’t know that there’s a lot of beach out there, waiting for your towel and book. Thanks to organizations like LA Urban Rangers, who lead urban “safaris” and otherwise help educate the public about their rights of access, the tide is turning, so to speak, and the public is learning what they have been missing—or been illegally shooed away from—for years or decades. Most recently, this guy, a billionaire, just lost his case trying to keep one of the prettiest beaches in Northern California all to himself when he didn’t even live on the property.

So how to you figure out what’s what?

WET SAND: “is generally considered public land and the state holds it in ‘trust’ for the public benefit,” according to Angela Howe, Legal Director of the Surfrider Foundation. After that, it’s a specific state issue. You can check out Beachapedia for the laws in your particular coastal state.

Similar to wet sand, you will most likely be on a public beach if you pack your book and towel into a boat, a kayak, or a Huck Finn-type raft. According to Ms. Romans: If you arrive at a beach via boat or from the ocean side, you are staying within the public trust lands.

Basically, before you go, brush up on your state’s laws.

Know your rights, but (a) keep in mind that even being right doesn’t always win you the day; and (b) there’ve also been situations where the guards will call the police who will then show up and be unfamiliar with terms like “mean high tide line” and “public access.”

Some beaches even have an app that can help you with access (and will have official documents you can show the guards/cops), e.g., Our Malibu Beaches, which  comes with both iOS and Android versions.

There is also the YourCoast App that the California Coastal Commission created, and a print California Coastal Access Guide.

Okay: beach read, check; towel, check; rosé, check.

But what if you feel bad lounging and reading on the beach in front of some billionaire’s house while his wide-eyed family stares at you? Well consider, besides the fact that people like David Geffen had promised to build a public access path to the Malibu beach next to his property in return for a remodeling permit—back in 1983!—and instead he has been spending all this time trying to keep people from lawfully accessing what has been acerbically known as “Billionaire’s Beach.” Spending money keeping people from a public beach is a particular crime in an urban area that has such little access to public green space—this small loss of privacy is a well compensated tradeoff for the loveliness and the guarantee of non-development that accrues to one lucky (and rich) enough to live in a house that abuts a public park. Can you imagine if rich New Yorkers tried to block access to Central Park with boulders (yes, someone did that to hide a beach access point) or complained about the noise from Shakespeare in the Park?

In Florida, when the state deposited tons of new sand on eroding shorelines, they declared this new, replenished land government property, and therefore public. It makes sense; we all have to share the consequences of our climate-change and rising sea levels, why not enjoy the beaches that our taxes pay to shore up?

It’s your beach, people. Grab your book and get beach-reading.

Image Credit: Flickr/Anne Adrian.

Books & Mortar: A Day in the Life of Judy Blume, Bookseller

I’d like to present to you a semi-regular column: Books & Mortar! Which will look at the fabulous world of tucked-away independent bookstores, a pulsating nationwide constellation of literary delights that, heaven forbid, you might walk past without knowing it’s there.

For instance, Key West, the southernmost point in the U.S., is the home of Jimmy Buffett, tarpon fishing, turquoise waters (and drinks), spring breakers, pirate stories, great Cuban food, and crazy-beautiful sunsets. But it also has a storied literary history, with residents including Elizabeth Bishop, Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wilbur, John Williams. It’s where Wallace Stevens famously attempted to punch Ernest Hemingway at the Sloppy Joe’s bar, with mixed results. And more recent writers have called Key West home: Ann Beattie, Tom McGuane, Joy Williams (also, her book The Florida Keys: A History and Guide is one of the most masterful works of travel writing that you’ll ever want to read).

And now it has Books & Books Key West, a locally owned independent that opened in 2016 and is also (voluntarily—haha) nonprofit. This 1,200 square foot store is housed and affiliated with The Studios of Key West, an arts and cultural organization that, among other things, runs an artists’ residency. Books & Books Key West thus also carries a terrific selection of art supplies.

Oh, and one of the cofounders and owners is someone you may have heard of: Judy Blume.

The Millions: What was the genesis of this amazing store?

Judy Blume:  George [Cooper, Blume’s husband] and I wanted a full service indie bookstore in Key West.  When we came to town 20 years ago there were five bookstores.  Four years ago we were down to one used store.  We tried to get Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books, the great Miami area bookseller, to open a store in Key West.  He wanted to but ultimately he couldn’t make the numbers work.  Rents in Key West are very high and we’re more than three hours by car from Miami.  Finally, Mitch said, “If you and George can find a way to make it work I’ll be there for you.”  George is on the board of The Studios of Key West, a non-profit arts center who had just renovated a beautiful art deco building in Old Town with a 1200 square foot corner storefront.  The perfect place for a non-profit indie bookstore! We (George) convinced the board of the Studios it was worth a shot.  Everything happened so fast it feels like a dream when I look back.  We opened in February 2016.  I laugh now at how little we knew about running a bookstore.  We learned on the job.  We’re affiliated with Mitch’s stores but we’re non-profit and financially independent.  We call Mitch’s Coral Gable store our “Mothership.”  They do our buying (though we can order or reject any books we want.)  They set up our store with handsome refurbished fixtures from one of their stores.  Their staff came down for two weeks to set us up with our initial order and to train our staff, including George and me (we have three paid employees now) and our volunteers.  During “season” our volunteers are especially important to us.  They are great readers.  One knows poetry.  One worked in a bookshop in London.  I miss them terribly when they leave for their summer homes but we are so lucky to have our three hardworking, loyal, friendly, fun employees.  Our first season, George and I worked seven days.  This past season we were able to take two days off a week, and we’re thinking of working four days a week next season.

TM: Does your bookstore have a mascot? A bookstore cat?

JB:  The idea of having a bookstore cat is appealing but because we’re on a busy corner we’re concerned about any animal—cat or dog—running out into the street.  One day, when we first opened, a hen came into the store.  Chickens are protected in Key West and roam freely around town.  We stayed calm, though we were thinking, OMG, if that chicken gets scared and starts flying around she’s going to poop on our books!  Lucky for us, she wandered around, then with some gentle urging, walked out the way she walked in.  Maybe she was looking for a good book?  We leave our door open in nice weather.  Customers bring in their own dogs. We keep a water bowl outside and treats by the register. This works best when it’s one dog at a time.  Usually they ask if it’s okay and usually we say yes (if it’s a nice dog).  So far only one has peed on our floor and the customer, a tourist, walked out before we knew it.  Good our floor is concrete.

TM: What’s the most surprising thing you have found about being a bookseller?

JB:  How much there is to learn, how hard you work every day, not just with customers but in the back room.  The number of boxes that arrive weekly is staggering.  We see our UPS delivery guys almost every day.  Receiving new books and returning others (I had to learn to be tough because, as a writer, I never want to return books) takes us a huge amount of time.  One of our two managers is always on that.  Then there’s keeping up with the dusting.  Everyone is expected to dust.  If we had a cat, I’d give her a cloth, too.  The time flies by.  I usually go home exhausted but very happy and can’t wait to go back again the next day.

TM: You and your husband George are co-founders. How do you divide up the duties?

JB:  I’m on the floor, chatting with customers, helping them find the right books, even working the register (not my strong point but I’m very proud of what I’ve learned to do).  Every day I “pet” the books, move them around, change the window displays. Tuesdays are “new book” days.  That’s when I get to put out the books that are date-sensitive, which means moving around all the books on the new and notable table.

George is in the office most of the time.  He’s our CFO, making sure it’s all going well.  And so, far, fingers crossed, it’s been a success.

TM: Authors are beginning to open up bookstores all over the place: Louise Erdrich in Minneapolis, Ann Patchett in Nashville. Larry McMurtry is a long-time bookstore proprietor.  Do you think you’re part of a trend?

JB:  I didn’t know about all the authors opening bookstores when we started, but it’s good news!

TM: What’s a day in the life of Judy Blume, bookseller like?

JB:  Rush, rush, rush—to get to the store.  We’re open 10 to six, seven days a week.   I ride my bike unless it’s rainy.  Tuesdays and Thursdays I come directly from the gym.  When we opened the store, we thought our customers would be 75 percent locals and snowbirds, and 25 percent tourists.  In fact, it’s about 80 percent tourists and 20 percent locals.  The tourists have been great.  They sometimes buy a stack of books and send them home.  They ask for restaurant recommendations.  And they’re always—always—thrilled to be in Key West.  Of course we love our locals, too.  So there’s a lot of chatting about books, Key West, and whatever else is on their minds.  By the end of the day I’m exhausted (or did I say that already?).  All I want is to eat dinner and go to bed.

TM: Do people freak out when they find out the lovely woman who just hand-sold them a novel is the beloved Judy Blume?

JB:  Yesterday a couple came in and George and I were chatting with them about their used bookstore in another Florida city.  George (that devil) asked if they carried Judy Blume books and before I could stop them from answering, always afraid they’ll say something like—I would never carry those books!—she said “Oh yes, a lot.”  At which point I said, “I’m Judy”—and she was so taken aback I was worried she might faint.  But all ended well.  In the beginning, before there was so much publicity, people did freak out.  Once I had to prove who I was by showing the customer my photo on the back of In the Unlikely Event.  She studied it, studied me (I admit I was having a bad hair day and I’m often red-eyed and itchy nosed from something—the books, the dust, the building? It was clear she didn’t believe me and I was sorry I’d gotten into the conversation in the first place.  Now, people come in because they’ve heard it’s my store. The trolleys, the tour buses, the concierges at the hotels, all let them know about Books & Books @ the Studios.  And we’re grateful. George and I joke that I’m the Southernmost (everything in Key West is the “southernmost”) Shamu. You know, have your photo taken with Shamu (remember the whale, the one time star of Sea World?) Because we’re a non-profit, I don’t do photos unless the customer is actually buying something. It doesn’t have to be my book but it has to be something. People have been very understanding. Still, it embarrasses me to have to tell a customer our rules.

TM: What’s the best kind of bookstore customer?

JB:  Anyone who’s friendly, loves to read, and finds a book or three to buy. Or maybe it’s a young person who says she doesn’t like to read who leaves the store with her nose in a book.

TM: The worst?

JB:  Let’s say the most challenging.  That would be a customer who wants a certain book but can’t think of the title or the author’s name.  The cover is blue, or has a spot of blue, or maybe the type is in blue.  She/he will think it’s new, will remember seeing it on our table last week, but it could have been she/he has just read about it.  We’ll go around together looking at all the places that book might be.  Sometimes we’ll actually find it. Hallelujah!

TM: What book do you want to tell the world about right now?

JB:  Right now it’s What to Do About the Solomons, by Bethany Ball, a first novel I loved.  It’s funny, sexy, and original.  I’m also talking up Edgar and Lucy, by Victor Lodato.  Emily (one of our managers) and I both loved it.  And, of course, my favorite book of the year, The Nix, by Nathan Hill.  You don’t want to miss this debut novel.  George agrees.

TM: Are there other staff who are also writers?

JB:  George has published two non-fiction books, both based on historical crimes.  He’s a big help when someone wants a non-fiction book on a certain subject.  That’s because he’s a reader.  It’s more important to have staff who know and love books than staff who writes them.

TM: One of the great things about a bricks-and-mortar store is not only the individualized book picks, but also the author events. What were some of the fun ones this year?

JB:  We had our first big events between January and April this year.  Jami Attenberg, Kay Redfield Jamison, Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt.  We had kids’ authors Meg Cabot and Rachel Vail.  Since summer is our slow season we won’t have any more events until next fall/winter.

TM: What’s a favorite bookstore—NOT YOUR OWN?

JB:  We visit bookstores wherever we go these days.  In Santa Fe we’re fans of Collected Works.  But, of course, our absolute favorite is Books & Books in Coral Gables. And their food (they have a cafe) is scrumptious!

Alternate Writing Residencies for the Trump Era

My earlier post was about artist residencies, these magical places that take the writer out of her workaday world and into a new place, just for the artist. No need to let answering the phone or procuring and cooking food slowly chip away at one’s day. Because it’s expensive to house and nurture artists, many residencies need public funding, which will be in danger for the next four years.

In case Donald Trump cuts off all public funding for the arts, here are my tongue-in-cheek favorite alternative, quasi-publicly-funded residencies:

The Airport Residency
Airplanes, with their engine-whines and the threat of the seat recline crushing your laptop, aren’t great spaces to work. But once, when I was stuck in an airport for a few days (ironically, on the way to a residency), I had the time to realize how delicious it was to be the still point in a hub of transit. Everyone was so focused on their destination, I was as anonymous and private as if I were in a cabin out in the woods. There was plenty of food, comfortable chairs, even a branch of the Tattered Cover bookstore. Had I wanted it, legal pot was just a cab ride away.

The Volunteer House in Riverside Park Residency
I don’t actually know how to get into this house, but it’s a quiet little hut that overlooks Riverside Park in New York city (which is much quieter than Central Park). And every time I pass this house, it looks so reminiscent of the studios I’ve been in, say, at Yaddo. The place looks like it gets plenty of sun and there’s an Ecuadorian food cart just a few hundred feet away; in the spring summer and fall there’s a bar/ restaurant that operates inside the park. Perfect!

Vermont Rest Stop Residency
I couldn’t have been more charmed by this rest stop, a wood stove, a solarium with its plant powered waste-treatment plant. There were desks and a view, as well as unlimited coffee, and, I was told, sometimes they provided Twizzlers.  Who doesn’t like a little Vermont socialism?

My Home Office Residency
I actually have a nice little office, by New York City apartment standards. Faces a quiet street, expansive desk. Now, if I could just get my spouse to take a break from being a professor and devote his day to making meals that he can tuck into a picnic basket, we’d be in business.

What are your fantasy residencies?

Image Credit: Flickr/Miel Books

When the Private Sector Funds the Arts

I recently wrote a piece defending the National Endowment for the Arts, a grantmaking organization that represents .001 percent of the U.S. annual budget but is somehow such a drag on the economy that it is now very publicly on the chopping block (along with sister agencies, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting) for the federal 2017 budget. This move makes perfect sense for Donald Trump the businessman, according to GOP enablers, because if the arts and so-called free expression are so worthy, the private sector will step in and fund them.

As if on cue into my in-box comes the news that the very temple of capitalism, The Mall of America, is initiating a Writer-in-Residence program, giving “a special scribe the chance to spend five days deeply immersed in the Mall atmosphere” along with an honorarium,  food stipend, and housing.

Residencies for artists to create art isn’t a new idea. But this is the first time I’ve seen one that has been offered by a corporation (MOA Holdings, LLC).

Normally, residencies are funded by a combination of public funding and private donors and foundations that support the arts. The nation’s oldest residency program is the MacDowell Colony, founded in the early 1900s by composer Edward MacDowell, who noted to his wife, a pianist, that in their summer location on their bucolic farm in New Hampshire, he produced better — and more — music. The MacDowell Colony was born out of the desire to share this experience, and various artists, including writers, visual artists, composers, and choreographers from all over the world travel to Peterborough, N.H., to sleep in communal quarters, eat wonderful food, and work without distraction in a studio out in the woods. Work that has come out of this one place has shaped the American cultural landscape — e.g., Thornton Wilder wrote Our Town there; over the years, the Colony has dispensed this gift of time and creativity to artists as varied as James Baldwin, Aaron Copland, and Meredith Monk. This gift is made possible in part by public funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.

When I was starting out as a young fiction writer, the advice I received most often from mentors and editors even before I started getting published regularly was to do a residency. I was working on Wall Street to support myself (so I could live alone in New York City — and write), and attending artist residencies were some of the first opportunities I had to meet other artists.

When I’m lucky enough to get an artist’s residency, as soon as I’m on the grounds, I enter into what I consider a sacred state: an intentional community detached from the outside world, where signal can finally be separated more easily from noise. This paradise for the mind is also free or minimal cost, they sometimes come with stipends for lost wages. One favorite, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, received an NEA grant for Collateral Reparations, which funds a residency scholarship for a veteran.

These residencies are purposeful in their locations; one of them buries its power lines to eliminate visual clutter, another one is in the stunning landscape of Wyoming. The last residency I did, at the Mesa Refuge in coastal California, the sky, devoid of the usual light pollution, had so many stars it was startling; the impressive dark was initially alien — then inspiring — to this city-dweller.

The basic artist residency is a studio, a place to sleep, and food. Composers’ studios, for instance, have pianos (Steinways at one) that are carefully and professionally tuned. Visual artists studios have huge blank walls. Writers’ studios tend to be monk-like in their simplicity: desks, a bed for napping. Ample space to spread out chapters, to group poems. One studio had a wall made of corkboard that looked like a starry sky, punctured infinite times by all the writers who’d been through, pinning up their notes. There are no ringing phones, no drop-ins. Often, no Internet.

It’s in this quiet that dreams swim to the surface more readily, and I am there waiting to write them down, instead of my usual: making mental grocery shopping lists, scheduling appointments, watching the clock.

When I saw the ad promoting a residency at the Mall of America, my first impulse was “I must apply!” See, a bunch of scenes in my novel take place in the freaking Mall of America! It had a nice honorarium ($2,500) for 5 days in residence at a connected mall hotel, plus a $400 food stipend, which is a lot of Cinnabons.

But a quick look at the terms reveals the horrifying things the artist gives up in the for-profit residency: her art.

Regimented by corporate decree, instead of a studio in the woods, “Workspace will be located in a common area space within Mall of America.”

You basically clock in: “The core daily work hours will be 11:00am to 7:00pm.”

And, like being a busy-bee warehouse worker at Amazon.com where bathroom breaks are monitored for frequency and efficiency:  “While the Winner will be encouraged to take breaks from writing to explore the Mall, post on social media, eat and find inspiration, the Winner will need to be physically present at the writer’s desk for no fewer than four (4) hours per day.” Prime one-day shipping waits for no one — why should art?

Inwardlooking-ness, contemplation, stillness has never been a friend to corporations, so:

“The Winner’s ongoing work may be displayed in almost-real time on a large monitor at the workspace. The work product may scroll continuously throughout the day for passersby to view.”

When a business takes over, the artist residency basically becomes its opposite. The protected space of creation becomes a publicity stunt for consumer entertainment. I noted the Mall of America’s Writer-in-Residence announcement was a PR release touted as an “event,” wedged in the website, not even meriting a place as a “Feature Event” like “Clash of the Super Beers” and “Toddler Tuesday.”

What we have here, when for-profit private interests take over, is not an artist residency, but a propaganda-PR content factory (indeed, the content must “be approved by a Mall of America Marketing representative” to not be “contradictory to the Mall of America’s desired presentation of the Mall”).

But even more worrisome is the idea of corporate ownership of an artist’s work: the writer “unconditionally agrees that Sponsor shall be the exclusive owner of all right, title, and interest in and to any and all work product, materials, and content produced by Winner during the MOA Writer-in-Residence.”

I’m not saying art cannot be created by the private sector. But I am saying that it’s unlikely, given these terms — of the work and of the ownership — that few artists I know would consider such a risk. And it’s not as if there isn’t a history of artists producing works for pay: during the Depression, a full 7 percent of the Works Progress Administration’s budget was given over to art, as the head of the WPA acknowledged that artists needed economic relief from the devastation of 1929, like any other workers.

Through the arts, music, theatre, and writers projects, Post Offices were decorated, plays were written. The Federal Writers project created the well-known American Guide series to the states. Some of the 20th century’s greatest abstract painters, such as Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko, were kept afloat during the Depression by their employment creating realistic figurative murals for the government. For Willem de Kooning, WPA funding made it possible for the first time for him to concentrate fully on fine art instead of having to do commercial painting.

Do we want a small number of taxpayer dollars — roughly 45 cents per person — helping fund the next wave of important artists? Put another way: should corporations provide us with “work product” — clever, enjoyable, and effective ads for capitalism? Or do we want art off the workaday clock, art that’s been allowed to effloresce into all its beautiful, strange, and disturbing forms?

Put another way: do we want work that explores the void, or do we want “Void where prohibited?

Image Credit: Flickr/Cliff.