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what i'm reading: lost memory of skin by russell banks

Sun, 12/14/2014 - 05:30
Lost Memory of Skin, Russell Banks' 2011 novel, begins with an impossible paradox.

A group of men are living in an encampment under a highway. It is, in fact, the only place they can live.

Each of them has been convicted of some crime involving sex. The state, in a moral panic over child pornography, has decreed that after serving time in prison, a former sex offender cannot live within 2,500 feet of any place where children may be present: schools, public parks, bus stops - and homeless shelters. The men wear homing devices on their ankles to enforce compliance, and they are not allowed to leave the county. One problem: there is no residence in the county that is more than 2,500 feet from any forbidden zone.

It's easy enough to dismiss this concern: who cares about these people, they are scum, they are worthless. But the fact remains, they exist. They must live somewhere. And there is literally no place they can live. And so, these social pariahs have formed a ragged little encampment under a highway, where they live in scavenged shanties.  (This situation is real; it has been challenged by the ACLU.)

This is untenable paradox, the premise of Lost Memory of Skin. The Kid, the main character whose real name we never learn, lives in this shanty town. Until politicians vowing to "clean up" the homeless send cops to break bones and smash what passes for shelter.

The Kid is not a bad person, and he is not dangerous. The crime that has led him to this marginal existence is slowly revealed to the reader, and is stupid and pathetic, but not heinous. The Kid is lost, and confused, and socially maladjusted, the result of a lifetime of total neglect, an utterly empty childhood that he filled with internet porn.

Into the Kid's life comes the Professor: a genius, a socially successful person, but also a person with a dark past, with secrets, and with his own deficiencies and his own addiction. The Professor has some theories about sex offenders, and he wants to study the Kid to prove them. He also wants to use the Kid for his own purposes - not sexual, but shadowy and illegal nonetheless.

His relationship with the Professor changes the Kid, and those changes begin to sort out of some of his emotional and mental confusion... but the plot thickens. Is the professor who he says he is Towards the end of the book, another character enters the mix: the Writer. The Writer appears to be a stand-in for Banks himself, who asserts some philosophical guideposts and offers some clues as to how to read the book (and functions as a plot device). In lesser hands, this would have been awkward, even ridiculous, but Banks pulls it off.

When I write about books, I often skim reviews from sources I respect to get a feel for what critics thought. Most critics felt this book was worthwhile, even important, but their interpretation differed widely from mine. For example, it is widely assumed that the Professor's theories about child sex offenders are Russell Banks' own views. I find plenty of evidence in the book that they are not; in fact, the Professor's theories are disproven, or at least questioned, as soon as they are espoused.

One theme running through Lost Memory of Skin concerns how we construct our sense of our selves - how and to what extent we shape our own reality. The Professor has a dark past, and has re-invented himself many times over. The Kid must form his self almost from scratch, as a young adult, with very little to guide him. The Writer has his own theories, but it's unclear whether the Writer offers guidance or more confusion. I saw this theme as central to the novel, yet not one reviewer (of the ones I read) even mentioned it.

Lost Memory of Skin is an absorbing novel, sometimes suspenseful, sometimes achingly sad, sometimes a bit strange. Parts feel bumpy and require a certain faith from the reader, but Russell Banks has earned that faith from me. Like all Banks' novels, this one is beautifully written, thought-provoking, and well worth your time.




bobby keys, 1943-2014

Fri, 12/12/2014 - 05:00


Terrible news for the music world this week, and for the world of unabashed, unrepentant, hard partying rock-and-roll.

I have loved Bobby Keys for as long as I've known of his existence, which is to say a very long time. If you read Life, Keith Richards' memoirs, you know a few good Bobby Keys stories. And if you love the music of the Rolling Stones' best years, you've been loving Bobby Keys, too.

Keith and Bobby shared a birthday, and much of their lives. The death of Bobby Keys hits Stones' fans with a special kind of force.

Bobby Keys: Bruce Weber writes about him here.

10 reasons you should participate in write for rights on wednesday, december 10

Sun, 12/07/2014 - 06:00
This Wednesday, December 10, is Human Rights Day. The date was chosen to commemorate the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, the first document of its kind.

Every year on December 10, Amnesty International holds a global letter-writing event: Write For Rights (in Canada). Thousands of people around the world write letters calling for action for victims of human rights abuses, and offering comfort and support to political prisoners.

Here are 10 reasons you should participate in Write For Rights 2014.

1. It's easy. Amnesty makes it really easy to participate. Read, type, send.

2. You can do do it from any computer. No meetings to attend, no schedule to keep. Just more of something you do all the time anyway: typing.

3. It's free. No need to donate money. The most this will cost you is postage.

4. You'll feel good about yourself. Enjoy that warm buzz you get from voluntarily helping other people. There's nothing quite like it.

5. You can choose how much to participate. Write one letter, write two letters, write three. Spend 10 minutes writing or spend an hour.

6. You can choose what to focus on. Write about an issue in your own country. Write about an issue in your country of origin. Write for children, or for women, or for LGBT people, or for workers, or for environmental activists, or for another issue that you care about.

7. You're busting stereotypes. We supposedly live in a selfish age where all we care about is I, me, mine. Challenge yourself to say it ain't so.

8. It works globally. Every fight against injustice begins with someone shining a light in a dark place. Be that light.

9. It works locally. When political prisoners are released, they often attest to the difference letters from strangers made in their lives: that knowing they were not forgotten helped them survive.

10. You enjoy your own human rights every day. Why not use them to help someone who can't?

Write for Rights in Canada

Write for Rights in the US

Write for Rights internationally.

On Facebook

Twitter: #Write4Rights