Category Archives: Essays

Going to Give the Blood

Photo credit Alex Crétey Systermans.

By Joanna Chen

“Can I give blood too?” my son asks as I stand in the doorway, car keys in one hand, my bag and a bottle of water in the other. “No,” I say. “You can’t. You’re too young.” He is fifteen years old and has a genetic disease. He will probably never be able to donate blood. Continue reading

The Odysseys of Homer

Photo: Monica Neuwens

This essay was commissioned for The L.A. Odyssey Project, a month-long, city-wide exploration of Homer’s epic poem presented by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Public Library. For more information, visit http://lfla.org/odyssey/.

By James Porter

The two poems attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are among the finest treasures in the world. They are also among the most puzzling and mysterious. Sprung full-grown like Athena in full armor from the head of Zeus, the poems miraculously appear sometime around 750-650 BCE, each the size of a hefty novel (nearly 16,000 verses for the Iliad and 12,000 for the Odyssey), each perfectly self-contained and of the greatest narrative sophistication, and neither one overlapping with the other, as if obeying some silent convention or territorial prerogative. Continue reading

Right to Raft

Photo: Nadine Cordial

By Elizabeth Lauren Winkler

There’s a quality to youthful American summers that sets those childhoods apart. I’ve sped far enough forward now from that time that my memories have condensed into a series of vivid, if fractured, images: my parents parked on their canvas beach chairs (Dad slack-jawed in a heat-induced nap); crabs strewn like the bodies of a defeated army across a long brown-papered table; the sea of Fourth of July patchwork quilts; fireworks, post-explosion, dripping color through the night; heat throbbing on the courts at tennis camp; melting popsicles; tangled, sunburned limbs; and the cool, chemical blue waters of the country club pool. Continue reading

Literary Santa Barbara: A Travel Piece

By Jerry Griswold

While the movie “Sideways” presented Santa Barbara as the regional capitol of mid-life wine tasting, it has also been a place where writers have come and set up shop for over 150 years. These have included Ross MacDonald, Sue Grafton, Wallace Stegner, Kenneth Rexroth, Randall Jarrell, T.C. Boyle, John Sayles, Gretel Erlich, and many others.

Writers have also written about the place. One of the first was Kate Douglas Wiggin (best known for Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) who found Santa Barbara a “tropical revelation” after moving from snowy Maine. Among the more recent is Pico Iyer, travel writer and sometime resident of the city, who described Santa Barbara as “softer than L.A. but harder than Santa Cruz.” Continue reading

Letter to the Dorchester County Board of Education, Regarding Patrick McLaw

Photo: Patrick McLaw

Editor’s Note: Patrick McLaw, a language arts teacher at Mace’s Lane Middle School in Maryland, was recently placed on administrative leave from teaching after it was discovered that he had published two novels. One of the novels, “The Insurrectionist”, is about two school shootings and takes place far into the future. McLaw was taken in for an emergency medical evaluation and the police swept the school for bombs and guns, coming up empty.

We have the privilege of publishing here a letter from Nalo Hopkinson, a professor at UC Riverside and a science fiction author, to the Dorchester County Board of Education.  Continue reading

The Silence Within Silence

Photo: Terri Weifenbach

By Joanna Chen

Yesterday there was a ceasefire. The night before, the booms did not stop. At 3 AM the house shuddered and the walls shook. At 8 AM, as the ceasefire began, silence fell upon the house. I stood at my front door with a second cup of coffee. The cat kept close, curling herself around my bare feet. At 8:05 there was a final crescendo, a deafening boom from the direction of Gaza. A bird lifted into the air, and before I saw the bird I heard its wings beating: one, two, three. I listened to the silence that followed as if I were listening to it for the first time. There are nuances to silence, there are degrees and shades to silence. This was a heavy, ominous one and it lay upon the air the whole day and did not move. Continue reading

Literary Junkies

Photo: Elizabeth Weinberg, part of “All Summer in a Day” series.

By Amy Spies

Readers, you may relate to my addiction.

It happened to me long ago.

I didn’t mean to get hooked.  I was just craving something to whisk me to another land, a better life, a fantastic world.  No one told me that all these lines, my blissful escape, could become a lifelong habit. Continue reading

A Letter from the Editor in Chief

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Dear LARB Supporters:

Last week we celebrated the third anniversary of our first review, on our temporary Tumblr site, and the second anniversary of our official launch.

In those three years, we have published 1,275 reviews, 985 essays, 435 interviews, 22 ebooks, 5 tabloid print magazines, and 3 quarterly print journals. We have produced 60 short films, 50 podcasts, 27 live events, 12 radio segments, and 2 streaming book club meetings.

The community of writers, editors, and supporters who make this possible has grown from a small handful of enthusiasts to, as this incredible collection of work suggests, the equivalent of a small village of people dedicated to literature, ideas, art, and culture.

We have expanded as a community of readers, too, and we now have as many as 30,000 visitors a day from all over the world. Over a third of these readers are overseas — in 150 different countries — and the rest are spread across all 50 states.

Los Angeles has never before had a literary institution of this breadth and reach, and it has been made possible by the generosity of this community of readers. We are reader-supported in the same way that our NPR stations are listener-supported, in the same way that all our cultural institutions are supported — our orchestras, our opera houses, our dance companies, our libraries, our art museums. Like these other institutions, the Los Angeles Review of Books is the expression of a community’s belief in the importance of art and ideas. LARB is your work as much as it is the work of our contributors and staff.

We began our life under the aegis of the University of California, Riverside, and have spent the last year aided by PEN Center USA, but we are now starting to fly solo, as an independent nonprofit organization, which means we are paying 100 percent of our own way, with your help.

We launched our membership program as a way to thank our contributors and supporters, sending magazines and books as premiums to show our appreciation. This membership program, as we hoped, is now one of our main pillars of support.

We have 600 members today, a very good start on the 2,000 we need. Those of you who have already signed up have made our work so far possible. Those of you who become members during this drive will ensure that we continue our work of bringing you some of the most exciting, provocative, and intelligent writing about books and culture available 

Sincerely Yours,
Tom Lutz

Back to the Post-Apocalypse: Jericho on Economic Politics

By Jonathan Alexander

SINCE 9/11, several SF television series, from the one-season Threshold (2005-6) to the more recent Continuum (2012-present) have grappled with the specter of terrorism.  Many, like Threshold and Continuum, play out hyperbolic scenarios of terrorist infiltration and attack, variously alien or from the future, to speculate on governmental and individual responses to terror.  At their worst, such series offer us terror as spectacle, with all the perverse thrills of mass destruction.  At their best moments, they become gripping meditations on the ethics of our various responses to terror.  What price security?  What sacrifices of freedom, individually and collectively, are we willing to tolerate to feel secure?  And, most provocatively, what critiques lie latent or ignored in terror attacks—critiques that, had we paid sufficient attention to them, might not have become manifest so destructively?

Currently available on Netflix, Jericho is one such series that deserves another look.  Running for two seasons (September 20, 2006 through March 25, 2008), Jericho is a frequently powerful drama about a small town in Kansas trying to survive in the immediate aftermath of a terrorist attack on the US that nukes 23 major American cities, including nearby Denver.  What’s perhaps most interesting about Jericho is how much narrative force comes from not knowing who the “enemy” is.  Islamic terrorists?  The Chinese?  Homegrown traitors?  Midway through the first season, the Chinese make a food drop, with notes saying “Do Not Fight”—but this seems a red herring.  And we eventually learn it is.

But who are the terrorists?  Jericho plays a teasing version of hide-and-seek here.   A whole subplot revolves around the character Hawkins, an FBI agent in hiding who relocated with his estranged family to Jericho just days before the bombs detonate.  His background and intentions are shrouded in mystery.  Indeed, for much of Jericho we don’t know what’s happening, with Hawkins particularly or the situation more generally.  More curiously, we are also asked to identify with, or at least sympathize with, the plight of Hawkins, whom we are led at times to believe might actually be one of the terrorists, now trying to protect his family in the aftermath chaos.  The confusion of identification is a striking aspect of many of these terrorist-themed, post-apocalyptic shows.  Whom, ultimately, can we trust?  Such questioning certainly builds narrative interest, but it also gestures toward conspiracy theories and plays to a sense shared by many viewers that we never really have the full picture—on the show or in real life—when it comes to global politics.  The most we learn in Jericho’s first season comes late in the plot development: apparently “cells” set off the bombs in a coordinated attack to “change the world.”  But who controls these cells, and to what purpose?

Jericho started airing in 2006, shortly before the economic collapse and right at the height of the Iraq war, which increasingly seemed run by—and for the economic benefit of—corporations.  The plot of the show interestingly follows suit.  An entire background story slowly emerges about one of the main characters, Jake, a badboy played by Skeet Ulrich, who gets stuck in Jericho after the attacks and eventually turns from punk and prodigal son to hometown hero.  We learn that he had been a mercenary with shady dealings in Afghanistan, including arms running and association with a Blackwater-style company named Ravenwood (in a nice play on words).  This background steadily becomes important, particularly as the town has to deal with Ravenwood, which has gone rogue as a gang of mercenaries (in the absence of government employers) to collect and control increasingly scarce resources.  Jake’s association with Ravenwood is a sore spot, one he seems to spend much airtime regretting and trying to make up for.

Seemingly in contrast to this comment on government and corporate complicity, much of the first season is taken up with a kind of romance of the small town, whose isolation is its primary saving grace as it’s largely out of the way of most mercenary and predatory interests.  The townsfolk use their relative safety to try to keep American traditions alive, such as celebrating holidays and hosting communal picnics.  But those traditions keep running into their own economic issues.  There’s a whole subplot about the local supermarket and the management and distribution of increasingly scarce resources.  Who, or what, should control such management and distribution?  What’s “fair,” particularly at a time of scarcity?  The fight for mayor–between the salt mine company-owning Gray, who wants to take a hardline on crime as well as who’s in and who’s out of the community, versus the recently ousted patriarch Johnston Green, who seems to want more “state” control over the distribution of resources but who also talks a lot about democracy–seem to reference different approaches to economic policy (not to mention immigration) in the mid-2000s.  Gray’s insistence on giving away all the available food seems to map onto Bush’s tax cuts and refunds and the conservative desire to deregulate more broadly: spread the wealth so it can trickle down.  Johnston’s more city-controlled policies of food distribution harken back to Clinton’s sometimes austere fiscal management while maintaining more liberal policies of state support and social welfare.  In the penultimate episode of the first season, the townsfolk make deals with the supermarket folks and the mercenaries to protect the town and its resources, primarily farmlands. At times of resource uncertainty, odd compromises must be made.  It’s hard not to read such a plot as referencing the “compromises” made in the early 2000s: we went to war to protect our interests, but whose interests, ultimately?  And at what cost ethically?

The second season heats up considerably as Jericho becomes part of the new emerging regime, the Allied States of America.  We quickly learn that the ASA has been set up by the orchestrators of the terrorist attack, who blamed (and then nuked) North Korea and Iran for the attacks. They’re re-writing history (literally, through new textbooks) to cast the former US as weak, lacking military force of will.  We also see Ravenwood, now backed by the ASA, assume policing responsibility for Jericho.  In a likely reference to Haliburton, Ravenwood is owned by Jennings and Rall, the company that serves as the bureaucratic arm of the ASA.  Interestingly, it’s worth noting that this season started airing in 2008, toward the beginning of the financial crisis, and, curiously, in that season we steadily see more focus on corporations and government complicity at the expense of democratic process and protection of civil liberties.  One of the farmers, for instance, is maneuvered into signing a really bad mortgage contract that essentially indentures him to Jennings & Rall.  Indeed, we slowly learn that J&R are behind everything, having created a plan in 1993 for the government to prepare for a disastrous attack—a plan that becomes the basis for an attack.  The company IS the government.  The government IS the company.

In some strange twists in the last episodes, we discover that “John Smith,” who’s been giving Hawkins information, has apparently set off the original 23 bombs in protest of corporate abuses.  He wants to detonate the remaining bomb in the ASA capital Cheyenne to destroy the new government, which is completely “corrupt” as a government set up by J&R to further its corporate interests.  He seems, though, like a psychopath, and we are not sure as viewers how to read his extraordinarily brief appearance in the second season.  It almost feels as though the series is backing away from strident anti-corporate critique to blame the whole apocalypse on one lone nut.  The series ends with two major characters, Jake and Hawkins, making their way to the Republic of Texas, which will apparently join forces with the former USA (headquartered in Ohio) against the ASA corporatists.  There is a comic that propels the story into a “third season,” but you’ll have to check that out on your own.  As is on TV, the story seems to end with the possibility that J&R and the ASA will eventually be brought down.

Jericho ultimately seems to play up some good old-fashioned American patriotism in its final episodes, simplifying its earlier narratives of and comments on the politics of economics.  Nonetheless, it’s still striking as a show that steadily blends, in just two seasons, concerns with corporate-investment in the Iraq War with more general fears that the government is fully a corporate state.  It’s hardly perfect in its latent critiques, and what’s not in the show is also odd.  Most notably, racial and religious conflicts are pretty much absent, although it’s clear that Jericho is a pretty white town, with the only visible black family (Hawkins’) one full of deceptions and secrets, and an Indian doctor who turns out to be a drunkard.  A more complex and compelling examination of government complicity with corporate greed might have woven in how frequently such complicity relies on religious rhetoric and racial bigotry.  But not in this small town.  Still, Jericho satisfies for the questions it raises and the buttons it pushes about the interconnectedness of politics and economics.  Absolutely worth another look.

¤

An Open Letter to LARB Supporters from William Giraldi

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IN AN INSPIRED ESSAY on Baudelaire, the great critic James Huneker made an assertion I’ve never succeeded in shaking free, even when I’ve felt most unworthy of its substance: when literature is done well, Huneker said, when it is executed with the torque and pitch of true art, “there is no mental toil comparable to it.”

We writers require and deserve to be paid for that mental toil; I for one have always been glacial when it comes to subscribing to magazines or providing donations to worthy literary venues — glacial as in slow, indeed, but also glacial as in maintaining the frigid rationale that it is I who should receive money from magazines, not the inverse. I’ve recently become quicker to donate and subscribe to worthy outfits because the real estate for serious, sustained literary comment has been eroded by a lobotomized marketplace, elbowed away in favor of book reviews no better than book reports polluted by knee-jerk emotions, or else replaced by the pop-culture pabulum that belongs jailed inside People magazine.

What LARB has accomplished in so short a span often strikes me as outright miraculous: a respected venue for serious, sustained literary comment in a cultural milieu which should have shunned its existence, retarded its every development directly from gestation. You know the value of LARB not only because it has survived against every odd, or provided a conduit for your own work, but because you have spent time there with the work of others who have earned your regard. Now an uncommon opportunity is upon us (and we contributors, if we have pledged our lives to serious reading, have a moral imperative to employ that pronoun, us, never them). In five days LARB will receive the tremendous gift of $50,000 if we can match the funds.

If every contributor would join me in a one-time donation of $100, we’d go a long way in securing this generous match — in helping to secure the health and punch of a literary outfit which in turn helps to transmit our fought-for ideas to a discerning readership. Recalling Dr. Johnson’s most notorious quip, about the mercenary motive of every writer, let’s bear in mind that this grant also augments the ongoing mission of LARB to pay contributors a fee equal to their abilities.

We writers are poor by some standards, and especially during this holiday blitzkrieg upon our pocketbooks, I realize. But we are poorer still if LARB diminishes or disappears from a dearth of support, if this venue which helps to buttress our mental toil fails to be buttressed in return. Please do click here, and may you and your work thrive in 2014.

Sincerely Yours,
William Giraldi