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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Borders Closing

Last week the papers were full of the news of Boarders’ announced shutdown. The Boston Globe published a few articles and some reader responses bemoaning the closing of the mega-store’s location near downtown crossing. None of the letters admitted to frequently buy books there. Instead they lamented the loss of a favorite place to browse books or read on one’s lunch hour. One reader stated that she liked to browse at Borders, make a decision, and then purchase the book on her digital tablet. The Wall Street Journal presented this closing as ominous for the book industry: book sellers, authors, and publishers alike. Both noted that the reason for Border’s collapse is the Internet, specifically which allows people to select exactly what they want from a seeming unlimited database of books.

Reporter Richard Nash of took a more optimistic approach that heralded a new age in selling books: A trend toward a micro economy. His opinion implied that formerly, the greatest challenge for a bookstore was to provide the largest selection to its customers and thus the book industry saw the rise of the mega bookstores in the 90s. Now technology has made these mega bookstores obsolete; online browsing is much more efficient and informative than browsing in person and a online shopper is more likely to find a title that will satisfy his or her needs.

The Globe’s recent article and the response it received from readers leaves hope for independent stores to succeed where a large corporation failed. The fact that customers of the Borders at Downtown Crossing lamented the loss of the venue makes me think that there may still be a niche for the kind of place where books are for sale & can be read in store, but also can offer something else. Out of this optimism, two questions arose in my mind. First, were local booksellers optimistic or pessimistic when it came to the closing of Borders? Second, what does Border’s closing mean for the local book market? I decided to contact some local book dealers to see what they thought.

Tom Nealon owns Pazzo Books in West Roxbury, a local bookseller that specializes in rare and out of print books. Mr. Nealon expressed little surprise the corporation’s failure, “the death of Borders has done more psychological damage than anything else,” he explained via email. Pazzo Books secured a niche but also takes a more personable approach toward its customers as Mr. Nealon explained, “People still want recommendations – and not just ones generated by algorithms.” However he was not optimistic about the mega-store’s closing. “[Amazon is] the only obvious winner from this,” he stated, “having one giant player in the industry is bad for everyone.”

Tyler Stewart owns Pandemonium Books & Games, which specializes in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror books. The store also doubles as a venue where players face-off in games such as Magic the Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. Mr. Stewart largely credits his success to this diversification. “There is a very large overlap between gamers and science fiction readers,” he explained. Pandemonium plans on taking advantage of a recent partnership between the American Book Association and Google that will allow small booksellers to hawk ebooks using Google’s search capabilities. Mr. Stewart shares Tom Nealon’s view that an independent bookseller can serve its customers better. “One key advantage specialty bookstore have over generalist Internet giants is that we know the genres very very well, and I believe we will be able to recommend ebooks better than Amazon could.”

Admittedly, I only spoke to only two book stores as the majority of them did not respond to my email, but the initial response from local business owners seems to be somewhere in between the dire predictions of the Wall St. Journal and the optimism of Richard Nash of Hopefully local business can take advantage of technology and niche markets to overcome the threat of Amazon and Barnes and Noble in the coming months and years.

Monday, August 1, 2011

BBQ Sauce

As anyone who has broke bread with me knows, I LOVE BBQ SAUCE. And I recently found an interesting article written by Boston native and local business owner Tom Nealon on that very topic: De Condimentis (9): BBQ. I challenge anyone who also likes this to come with me to Red Bones.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

B.B. King: Is he a minimalist? Or does he just suffer from a severe case of arthritis?

I like the blues – that’s no secret – but my respect for the fans of legendary blues player B.B. King was much diminished when I went to see him live. I saw him perform at the “House of Lame White Motherfuckers” right after it’s re-opening on Lansdowne St. in Boston. My Girlfriend’s friend Steve was working there at the time. Steve kept appearing out of the crowd with two cans of Corona (who drinks cans of Corona) and at for most of the night I was triple fisting beers.

Now here’s something that I was unprepared for: If you go to see B.B. King, you’d better be ready to hear one song, then 5 minutes of an old guy babbling about back in the day. Unfortunately, for the idiots around me, I was not ready to let B.B kill my buzz so my girlfriend and I began to have a lively drunk conversation over his droning. We were laughing and having a lot of fun when I nudged a bald-headed man with glasses who was standing next to me. “CAN’T YOU CALM DOWN AND JUST LISTEN!?,” he whined, gesturing at the stage, “I’m trying to hear what he has to say!” I exchanged glances with my girlfriend, then looked back at the LFMF who, not waiting for an answer, had slithered a few rows ahead.

“What a Penis!” I said loudly, and received a “SHHHHHHHHHH!” from my left. I looked around at a sea of disapproving white faces that had come to grovel at the feet of a chatty old man. “TRASH!,” their frowns seemed to accuse.

Andrea and I continued our conversation, the beers continued appearing in front of us, and the “legend” rambled on about his guitar named Lucile, some kind of warehouse fire, and his days on the road. I wasn’t really paying attention, but I suspect he didn’t give a shit about that.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

KNEE JERK REACTION: "The Songs of Now Sound a Lot Like Then"

In his article in the Sunday NY Times (, music critic Simon Reynolds makes the point that recent pop music has been stealing sounds from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Reynolds gives the examples of Cee-Lo Green, who's Forget You is reminiscent of Motown, and the Black Eyed Peas, who's recent album reminds him of crappy 90s music. It is surprising to see a music critic treat this trend as a new phenomenon. The tradition of pop stealing from the music of the past out-dates today's shitty business theory that a particular song can be owned as intellectual property.* Pop music has never been an amazing source for original music. Elvis made smash its out of Little Richard originals, the early Beatles were a re-vamped version of 50s rock n roll, the Rolling Stones purposely absorbed black American music and created some of the greatest songs ever. I just don't seem to understand what's novel about musicians being influenced by the past. That's what making music is all about; exploring the past and then providing your own interpretation.

*That's not to say that musician's don't have a right to profit off of their recordings, they do, but fuck the record industry clowns. Share some music with your friends. Fuck Metallica.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Review: Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky

I get the impression that people like to think that Stalin was insane. From a western viewpoint that values freedom, the protection of life, and the rule of law, the fact that Stalin created a political machine that murdered 20 million Russians can only mean that he was a bloodthirsty madman. If you agree with this train of thought, then historian and playwright Edvard Radzinsky would beg to differ. In his book Stalin, he portrays the leader as too calculating and efficient to be insane. Lenin schooled Stalin on the theory of violence as a necessary tool to create the perfect socialist society by using all the means at his disposal to keep the socialist machine lubricated and productive. Radzinsky’s portrayal of Lenin’s tutelage reminds me of Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, who’s science was ultimately successful, but led to an aberration: the one man monstrous enough to bring Russia from a backwards feudal society to a modern socialist state.

As for Trotsky, Radzinsky does not sympathize with him. His was the fate of those who preach and practice violence as a means to an end. For Stalin, Radzinsky is neither sympathetic, nor critical of the leader who drove his people to slaughter in the name of a cause. The author takes a detached, but precise approach towards understanding Stalin’s methods of political manipulation and destruction.

Radzinsky’s description of Stalin’s tactics during Germany’s Invasion (Operation Barbarossa) reveals just how calculating Stalin was in regards to Russian lives: His strategy was to use an unprepared army as fodder to slow down the German war machine then to strike them with fresh, well trained forces at the onset of winter. Although Stalin’s gamble almost ended in disaster, as the Germans were knocking at the door of victory in December 1941, the strategic cities of Leningrad, Stalingrad, and Moscow held out long enough for the Soviets to mount a crushing offensive that turned the tide of the war.

For me, Radzinsky’s book raised the question: should we all be grateful for Stalin’s tactics in the Second World War? Or perhaps grateful to the millions of peasants he left in front of the wood chipper? The tactics of the Soviets probably prevented the loss of many American lives and certainly made the Western Allie’s invasion of mainland Europe much easier. That’s probably what Joe Strummer meant by the lyric “Raise up the banners of Stalingrad.”

Though slow moving at times, Stalin is well-written and seemingly accurate account of Russia’s most terrible leader. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys Russian writing and cares to see a Russian’s perspective of the man of steel.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A few things about Texas

“Remember the Alamo.” That’s the only solid detail about Texas I can recall from high school history. My father raised me to believe that Texas is full of bigots and rednecks. A college geology professor told me “Mars is like Texas, everything there is bigger than it is on earth.” Texas also reminded me of cattle, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and the Bushes: “Don’t Mess with Texas!” The Texas I knew was just a shallow stereotype. Creating stereotypes is a part of growing up, but destroying them is a mix of curiosity, humility, and luck.

David Mendoza helped me shatter my Texas myth. A Mexican-American from Texas, Mendoza lived in Boston and played piano in a rock & blues band called the Ramblin’ Souls. I played bass for the Souls and we practiced in the basement of a drycleaners in North Quincy. Some nights, Mendoza and I would emerge from the practice space with a buzz and head over to Caralilly’s bar for whiskey and beers. As Doze told me about his friends and family back home, I was surprised that such a tolerant culture existed in my mythical backwards land of rednecks and racists. “Georgie,” Mendoza slurred, “you don’t know shit about Texas!”

Texas’ history is as fraught with violence, racism, and myth as any Hollywood movie. There is no denying that violence and adventurism is central to this story, but Americans tend to flatten the landscape of our past into a two-dimensional struggle: us vs. them. Or in this case, whites vs. Mexicans. Recent historians have confronted this assumption by revealing the Mexican side of the story.

Before the Texas Revolution and the Mexican-American War, Mexicans living on the Texas frontier identified themselves more in a regional sense, as Tejanos, than as Mexican citizens. During the 1820’s and 30’s, Texas was a land where Hispanic people co-existed with powerful Indian tribes and a growing number of American immigrants. Since independence from Spain in 1821, the Mexican government exercised little control over Tejanos and their neighbors. The unwillingness of Mexican citizens to settle the northern territories en masse left Texans open to raids and manipulation from dominant Indian tribes like the Comanches. History would show that Indians were the least of the Mexican government’s worries.

The American tradition of filibustering added to the Mexican Government’s anxieties about controlling the northern frontier. As opposed to the tactic of filibustering used today in Congress, 1820’s filibustering was a military practice more akin to piracy. A group of armed soldiers would venture into the territory of a foreign state with the intent of pillaging and/or supporting a rebellion. Although filibusters were a political threat, what made them dangerous was the influx of American immigrants whose unchecked occupation of the land could lead to a loss of territory. Since it would be impossible and expensive to fortify the border and stop Americans from coming, the Mexican government started encouraging them to immigrate on Mexican terms and invited American settlers to live in Texas legally. To accomplish this, they enlisted certain American businessmen and entrepreneurs, known as impresarios, who recruited settler families in groups of one hundred or more. The intent of this system was to establish order by bringing American settlers under the authority of the Mexican state while creating a legal outlet for Americans seeking opportunity and land on the Texas frontier. Although these policies were well intentioned, they had the effect of turning Texas into a pressure chamber of racism and violence that would explode with miserable results for Mexicans and their government.

Before racial violence became the central theme of life in early Texas, American and Tejano elites joined forces to create an economic system that deepened on free trade with the United States. This boosted the growth of local economies by encouraging American immigration. By the 1830s whites outnumbered Tejanos in Texas 25,000 to 4,000. In some areas such as Laredo, a division of labor existed between Tejanos and whites where the later took up jobs as merchants and traders while Tejanos continued to work on their farms and rancerias. This system worked well for a while, but peace on the frontier was fragile and when the Mexican government tried to assert control over the region, the system gave way to violence.

The Mexican government took steps to assert their authority in 1830, passing laws that restricted American immigration, prohibited the importation of slaves, and encouraged European immigration. White settlers largely ignored the regulations. When local officials tried to enforce customs taxes, Texans reacted by attacking customhouses and presidios (military forts) across the territory. Amidst the violence, Texans appealed to the Central government to repeal the reforms. The government refused. In response, a sizable coalition of Tejanos and white Texans declared conditional independence pending a return to the original 1824 Constitution. Although traditional stories paint Mexicans as villainous tyrants, Tejanos played an important role in creating Texas as a place apart from the Mexican state. By working and living together, Tejanos and white Texans created a new Texas identity. When conflict came, both Tejanos and whites stood together as Texans to defend against the central power. However, what happened in the resulting war hurt the relationships between Tejanos and whites and intensified the racism and violence.

One story about Texas Mendoza likes to tell involves the grito. At the end of a long night of drinking in Denton, Texas, Mendoza and some friends got hungry and decided to hit an all-night diner for something to eat. Mendoza was sitting there, drunk as hell, trying to focus on his eggs and bacon when he suddenly let out a grito. In Spanish, grito literally means “yell,” but the Mexican grito is more than a yell, it’s an expression of Mexican pride. Mendoza told me that the grito, as he knows it, originated in the Mexican war for Independence and is still uttered today by Mexicans and Chicanos on both sides of the border. The yell is not transcribeable, so all I can hope to convey is that the grito, when properly performed, is a high-pitched yell that sounds half human, a quarter hyena, and a quarter jackal.

So Mendoza was sitting there, with his mind full of drunk thoughts, slopping eggs and meat into his face, and he screamed the grito, and the place erupted into yells and shouts as everyone in the restaurant answered Mendoza’s call. Looking around, Mendoza realized that everyone there were older Mexican guys who had just come off the late shift. The only white guys in the place were Mendoza’s friends. Just as he was looking around, everybody shut up and went back to eating without a word. “It was one of the craziest things that’s ever happened in my life,” Mendoza told me. It was also an odd story for me to hear: blatant Mexican pride in Texas? The story of how Tejanos went from identifying themselves as on the fringe of the Mexican mainstream, to showing pride in their Mexican heritage as a people under siege is a story of alienation, hardship, and racism.

The Texas Revolution began as an act of defiance as Tejanos and white Texan Federalists looked to protest the policies of Mexico’s central government with violence. The violence quickly escalated into war. The Federalist rebels soundly defeated the first army of 4,000 soldiers that the Mexican president, Santa Anna sent to quell the uprising in 1835. But the following year, Santa Anna himself took charge of the military and led the offensive winning crushing victories at both the Alamo and Golidad. Over 600 Texan rebels (both white and Tejano) were killed in these two battles. Because of his early victories, Santa Anna became cocky and over-extended his army in the rebel’s territory. The Texans captured Santa Anna, who quickly settled for peace in exchange for his freedom.

Having secured freedom from Mexico, Texans looked to join the United States. However, the slavery issue was raging in the United States and it became clear that Texas would not be immediately annexed, so the Texans looked west for allies. The young republic organized 300 white and Mexican soldiers to act as ambassadors to New Mexico. Their job was to convince the Mexican territory to join the Texas republic. Although they came with covered wagons and nearly $200,000 worth of goods to trade, they were also armed soldiers. After meeting with hardship and attack from Indians, they were disarmed when they reached Santa Fe and sent as prisoners on a “death march” to Mexico City.

Despite their shared hardships and struggles, the relationship between Tejanos and whites began to break down. Bad feelings between Tejanos and whites intensified during the rebellion because of the treatment some Tejanos received from the militia. A surge of volunteer fighters from the United States brought many Americans who had not been living with Mexicans. They were more likely to exhibit anti-Mexican sentiments. The Texas fighters raided civilian cattle and sought their enemies among the Mexican population. Texan press-gangs took food and supplies from unwilling farmers and ranchers. This had a polarizing effect on the population. By the end of the rebellion there were more Tejanos who sided against the Texans for this reason. Many Tejano families simply fled the war zone, fleeing east to Louisiana or south deeper into Mexico. Others attempted to hold on to their property and homes, but were often evicted or expelled. After the rebellion, this trend only escalated as whole towns, such as La BuhĂ­a, were destroyed and Tejano families were evicted from their property from San Antonio to Nacogdoches. Even Jaun Sequin, a San Antonio elite and a Tejano leader in the Texas rebellion, was forced to flee to Mexico because of death threats against him and his family. Texans justified this sort of treatment with a racism fueled by the violent acts of war. Although both white Texans and Tejanos committed atrocities, whites placed an uneven amount of the blame on Mexicans, specifically Mexican civilians whose only crime was getting in the way of white people. This was especially true in the contested border region between the new Republic and Mexico.

While the Rio Grande is Texas’ southern border today, in 1836 both Mexico and Texas claimed the one hundred and fifty mile swath of land between the Rio Grande and the Nueces River. As a result, the southern border region became a place were tensions between whites and Mexicans were at their worst. Following the Mexican American War (1846-1848), the region was the stage for a number of conflicts between whites and Mexicans as well as the everyday violence of border banditry. For Tejanos, the story of rebellion became a story of resistance to despotic treatment from white Texans. Certain Tejanos who stood up against unfair treatment became heroes. This developed into a larger Mexican cultural tradition of corridos (folksongs), poems, and narratives that depicted the adventures of Mexicans and Chicanos in opposition to white authority.

One of these real-life heroes was a man named Juan Nepomuceno Cortina, a Mexican landowner whose refusal to submit to white authority sparked a localized war known as the Cortina War. During the summer of 1859, Cortina was in the town of Brownsville when he came across a municipal marshal abusing one of his former employees. Cortina tried to intervene on behalf of his countryman, but the marshal did not heed his warnings so Cortina shot him. Later that fall, Cortina returned to Browsnville with a group of one hundred armed colleagues in order to enforce Tejano justice. He released some Mexicans from jail whom he deemed unfairly imprisoned and he executed four whites who had previously killed some Mexicans but had not been punished. Following the incident, Cortina released a statement of defiance against white injustice and proceeded to amass an army of 500-600 men. The Texas Rangers, unable to defeat Cortina’s force, reacted with indiscriminate violence against Tejanos living in the Rio Grand region. For six months, Cortina defeated every local military force sent against him. It took the intervention of the United States army in December of 1859 to end his war in Texas. Cortina fled to Mexico where he continued to be an important military figure and eventually rose to the rank of general. Although he lost the war, his story became an important legend of resistance that gave strength and hope not only to Tejanos, but to all Mexicans and Mexican-Americans who shared the experience of racism and repression from a society that sought to exclude them as others.

This tradition of resistance has not lost its edge and continues today. Director Robert Rodriquez’s most recent project, Machete, is a revenge-fueled farce that places Machete in a role very similar to that of Cortina. Machete, played by Danny Trejo, is an ex-Mexican federale who had to flee Mexico when he refused to participate in the corrupt practices of his colleagues. A Mexican immigrant in Texas, Machete is baited into a fake assassination attempt on a Texas senator whose only political message is the proposed extermination of Mexicans in Texas. The Texans plan to stage Machete’s arrest as a plot to embroil anti-Mexican sentiment and get the senator elected. Machete sniffs out the plot, but is too late to prevent his framing. Now a fugitive attempting to uncover the corrupt plot to enforce gringo justice, Machete uses his namesake to maim, dismember, and decapitate countless white villains who are out for Mexican blood. The Chicano community responds to his predicament by aiding him in a quest to take down the anti-Mexican machine. The result is a full-blown war between Chicanos and the militant border patrol, complete with tricked-out Cadillacs, rocket-launchers, grenades, automatic weapons, and of course, machetes. Although the violence is gratuitous and often for comic effect, the pro-Chicano theme is undeniable but not exclusive as there are whites that take Machete’s side. Machete does not kill any innocent civilians, nor does he harbor any hate against white people who aren’t trying to kill him. He is essentially a modern-day Cortina, standing up for the rights of Chicanos who receive unfair treatment from a despotic and hateful authority.

Through their actions, songs, and narratives Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have used culture to sustain resistance during the one-hundred and fifty years in which white society has tried to make them go away. Through cultural resistance, Mexican-Americans use history to paint a different picture of Texas than one would get from mainstream culture. Though some Tejanos initially joined whites in rebellion from Mexican society, the violence and racism that followed brought them to band closer together and seek a common identity through heroes like Juan Cortina and Machete. From my perspective, the racism that first dominated my view of Texas is still there. This is justified by the large role that racist violence played in shaping Texas history. However, I no longer think shallowly of Texas as a place dominated by only these aspects. When I first met Mendoza it was obvious that what I believed before was wrong and I started to take notice of Mexican-Americans in Texas. I have always had an open mind, but never had the need to dismantle my myths about Texas until I had a Tejano for a friend.

One of Mendoza’s favorite past times is confronting racist people in bars. One night, after we played a show with the Souls, some girls we knew took Mendoza to a Southie bar where he apparently held court. The Bar dweller’s distrustful glares soon turned to smiles and pats on the back as Mendoza mixed and mingled, buying rounds of drinks and receiving the same. One guy called him a spic, but somehow Mendoza was able to talk him down without getting punched in the face. After a few hours, Mendoza and the girls left to make last call at our favorite downtown watering hole. When I saw Doze he was beaming, “Hey Georgie, you shoulda seen this guy!” he said, “One minute he’s calling me spic, then next thing he’s buying me drinks!”

We had a couple rounds then headed out. When we got to the car we realized that Mendoza wasn’t with us, so I went back to get him. When I got back to the bar he was out front, standing in front of three Marines in their dress blues uniforms and yelling “Your guys don’t know SHIT about Texas!” As I came up to pull Mendoza away he turned to me, “Hey Georgie, these guys don’t know shit about Texas!” His spittle flying in my face, “You tell them!” But I didn’t. I dragged Mendoza out of there quick.

Mendoza moved to Los Angeles about two years ago but I still see him once or twice a year when he visits his family in Boston. Last time he was in town, he showed me his new phone. “What Happened to the old one?” I asked. “Well I got jumped by a couple of Mexicans one night,” he replied, “and they took my old one so I got this.” “Mexicans!?” I asked. “Yeah, I tried to reason with them in Spanish like ‘Hey, I’m Mexican too, we’re brothers,’” he explained, “but they kept beating me anyway. They said I was too white.” “Yikes,” I said, “What did they take?” “My wallet, my phone, and some money,” he replied, “but as I was sitting there getting kicked on the ground I started yelling at them, ‘Read a fucking book, Man! Read a fucking book!’” “Why’d you do that?” I asked. “I don’t know,” Mendoza said, “but it hurt like hell.”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A day at UMASS

Some weird shit happened yesterday when I was at UMASS:

A woman I don't know and I were getting into the elevator on my way up to the Graduate Assistants' office in McCormick hall. As we got into the elevator, 5 maintenance dudes piled in behind us stinking like booze and jabbering about alcohol addiction:

Medium-sized guy: Are you a full-time alcoholic?

Tall guy: No, part-time... I smoke crack full time though

I looked at one of them, an older black man, and we both laughed. He stepped up close to the woman I don't know, who had edged herself to the front near the elevator door. "I'm with her," he said. She looked stiff and uncomfortable. They maintenance guys all got out behind the girl on the third floor. I continued up to 4.

Later in the day, about an hour after lunch:

Professor C. sent me on an errand to deliver some mail. I set out across campus. In the depths of the Quinn Administration building, somewhere on the "Lower Level" amidst the twisting bowels and humming machinery of UMASS, I found the mail room. On my way back I came to a door labeled "rooftop access only," but I was underground so I didn't go in. Retracing my steps I found my way to the "Upper Level" (one level below the surface) and as I turned the corner out of the stairwell I heard some scuffling and grunting down the hall. Two Asian men were on the floor, locked in combat. They saw me and rushed to pick up the mess of papers, books and a book bag that was on the floor. One hustled past me with his face down, holding up a yellow slip of paper. His face was bloody but he was smiling. What was that all about?