Archive for January, 2011
A few months ago, I was bemoaning my Jurassic-era cell phone, and my brother mentioned that he had a first-generation iPhone he was no longer using that he would be happy to give me. I had resisted getting one because I didn’t particularly like the idea of being permanently tethered to the Internet, but by this point practically everyone I knew had a smart phone, and you never outgrow peer pressure. And activating a used phone meant I didn’t have to re-up for another two years with AT&T, which has notoriously spotty reception in the Bay Area, and is pretty bad in my house, too (I get a strong signal upstairs, but none at all in the living room).
My first order of business was to buy one of those protective cases for it. I went to an Apple store, which was, in retrospect, a huge and embarrassing mistake because they no longer sell cases for those old phones. I may as well have been inquiring about buying a box of 5 1/2″ floppies. I thought maybe my local AT&T mobile phone store might have a first-gen case rattling around somewhere, but no luck there, either. I finally wound up buying one on eBay.
Apple’s cycle of planned obsolescence is both blessing and curse. They are constantly upgrading their products — unlike Microsoft, each new OS truly does represent an improvement, and when you look at the very first iPod, you’ll be amazed at how big and clunky it is when compared to the Nanos that came later. But the constant desire for new, new, new is not just hard on consumers’ pocketbooks, it has environmental and human costs as well. One example is the “conflict minerals” that have caused death and destruction in the Congo. And then there’s Foxconn, the factory in Shenzhen, China, where all of your Apple gizmos, from iPads to laptops, are made (along with lots of other gadgets; half of the world’s electronics, by some estimates). This is a big factory — really big. It employs almost half a million workers.
Most people had never heard of Foxconn until a rash of worker suicides made the news last year. Monologuist Mike Daisey visited Foxconn and Shenzhen to try to find out what it’s like for the people who make your techno-gear, and he shares the results in his new one-man show, “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” now playing at Berkeley Rep (along with another Daisey show, “The Last Cargo Cult”).
But wait, you might be saying about now. I don’t want to see a show about poor labor conditions in China. That sounds like it may (a) make me feel guilty, (b) leave me depressed, or (c) just be no fun. And I’d respond, hold on there, pardner, this is Mike Daisey we’re talking about, the heir to Spalding Gray and one of the finest theatrical talents in the world today. I’ve been raving about the guy for years now (I caught his first local appearance back in 2004). Daisey creates some of the most riveting theater around, and he does it while seated at a desk, with no artificial amplification and only a few pages of notes, a glass of water, and a cloth (he sweats a lot) as props. Berkeley Rep did build him a couple snazzy sets this time around, though — a high-tech-looking LED backdrop for “Jobs” and an enormous pile of cardboard boxes for “Cult.”
Daisey is also an extremely funny guy. There are laughs aplenty in both shows. And the dramatic moments are magical — you can actually feel the audience collectively holding its breath. There were moments during last night’s performance of “Jobs” in which everyone was so focused on Daisey’s every word that there was nary a cough, a rustle of clothing or even a sigh to be heard in the 95%-full theater. When Daisey thanked us afterward for being a “great audience,” I believe he was being sincere.
Daisey has taken some heat for calling the show “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” as opposed to — I don’t know, “Mike Goes to China”? And while no one at Apple has commented on the show, as far as I could find, there are valid reasons why Daisey is targeting the company instead of, say, Nokia or Dell. Apple is, as Daisey points out, “a religion.” No one loves Zune MP3 players or Samsung TVs. People love Apple stuff. When the company announces a new product, it’s headline news. There are many folks like my father-in-law, who have to be the first to buy the iPad or the MacBook Air, just because it’s new and it’s Apple — even if it means standing in line for hours. And every Mike Daisey monologue is, to a greater or lesser degree, about Mike Daisey, and Mike Daisey loves Apple stuff. He namechecks some seriously old school gear in this show, and he admits that one of the ways he relaxed after a show was to take apart and reassemble his MacBook Pro.
(Speaking of old school, when I was a kid, we had this computer. Yes, it came with a micro-cassette recorder for program storage.)
So “Jobs” is not just about the conditions under which Apple stuff is made; it’s also about Daisey’s own geek-itude, as well as the birth and death and amazing rebirth of Apple as a company. (You may have forgotten about the Apple Newton; Daisey will remind you.) And if the show does depress you or make you feel guilty, the ushers give everyone a sheet with more information about the topics Daisey discussed as you leave the theater. Ignoring the situation won’t make it go away, and perhaps the suicides at Foxconn, like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, could be the catalyst for change. Seeing this show, and telling your friends about it, as I’m doing now, can’t hurt either.
A little supplemental reading:
Anyone who has ever forwarded me a cute story, amazing photo, dire warning, etc. knows by now that I will usually respond within five minutes with a link to Snopes telling them that whatever they sent me is bogus, and next time, please don’t be so credulous. I am suspicious by nature, and wanted to do a little research on my own. So here, from various sources, is some more information about Foxconn and the way our electronics are made:
“Inside Foxconn’s suicide factory” (The Telegraph, U.K.): â€œBecause Foxconn has had a large number of big orders, the workers are reduced to repeating exactly the same hand movement for months on end. The workers we have spoken to say that their hands continue to twitch at night, or that when they are walking down the street they cannot help but mimic the motion. They are never able to relax their minds.”
“The fate of a generation of workers: Foxconn undercover” (translated article on Endgadget.com): “In 2009, Time magazine nominated ‘The Chinese Worker’ as ‘Person of the Year,’ praising its ‘determined vision shone on the future of mankind,’ but this so-called ‘determination’ is needed to resist being mechanized and eroded by capitalism. Can they really avoid such ‘determination’? When computers, phones, cars, and all other commercial products become the products of capitalism, sweat, youth, and even life, all these values are exhausted by capitalism as well.”
“Apple Reports Discovery of Child Workers In Their Factories” (Gizmodo.com): “Three different factories Apple uses to manufacture parts employed 15 year old workers, 11 minors total, in countries that had a minimum working age of 16. Other unsavory findings include over 50 factories keeping workers on the job for longer than the maximum 60 hour work week and at least 24 factories paying workers less than the minimum wage.”
Photos: inside Foxconn’s “iPod City” (Apple Insider): “One photo shows shows a dormitory within E3 — a Foxconn-owned manufacturing facility responsible for churning out iPod nanos — packed tightly with cots and lined with wash buckets, lockers and clothes lines.”
“For the Foxconn kids, money doesn’t buy happiness” (French journalist Jordan Pouille): “Their parents are farmers or migrant workers themselves, from poverty-stricken provinces like Henan, Hunan, Sichuan. But these families hope their children will send them back some precious money, to build a concrete home or to cover health expenses. However, none of these parents have any idea about how difficult is their child’s job, how harsh is the military discipline, how hard is it to socialize when you have no time for it and how big is the pressure provoked by higher productivity objectives.”
I don’t see a lot of movies anymore. The theater closest to me specializes in mainstream, family-friendly fare like “Little Fockers” and “Yogi Bear,” movies I wouldn’t watch even if I were trapped on an overseas flight. The art houses in Berkeley don’t seem worth the trip unless the critics are almost unanimous (I was kind of interested in seeing Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere,” until I noted that several reviewers were using words like “ennui,” “boredom” and “stasis” to describe it). Joe is much more willing to take a flyer than I am; besides going to see stuff like “Machete,” “Red” and “Tron: Legacy,” he went alone to “The Social Network” because I figured, “who would want to see a movie about Facebook?” Most of the Academy voters, I’m sure. With that in mind, here are the five best of the 25 current films I saw in a theater this year (in days of yore, when I was less selective, that number would sometimes top 100; of course, movies were cheaper back then).
1. “Exit Through the Gift Shop”: Trying to sell this movie to someone, I said that it’s best if you don’t know too much about it going in; when pressed, I admitted that it’s a documentary about the modern art world. Look, I realize that’s not exactly an easy sell to most folks, but “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” the debut feature by British street artist/prankster Banksy, is so compelling that it almost makes me want to issue one of those money back guarantees that Roger Ebert & Gene Siskel used to do from time to time on their old show. Now that it’s on DVD, those of you with Netflix subscriptions can try it for almost free.
2. “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”/”The Girl Who Played With Fire”: After seeing how good the film based on Stieg Larsson’s first book was, I decided I could save myself a lot of time and turgid prose by just watching the movies. Noomi Rapace, who does an amazing job of embodying Lisbeth Salander, is a tough act to follow, but director David Fincher (assigned to remake the Swedish films) and star Rooney Mara won’t have to strain too hard to top the disappointing conclusion of the series. Something about “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” felt so wrong-headed to me that I had to call my mom after I saw it and confirm the fact that it changed the ending of the book (it did; who knows why). Since all three films came out in a single year in Sweden, perhaps things just got too rushed. The first two, though, are dynamite.
3. “The King’s Speech”: It finally gets just a hair too sentimental, what with Beethoven’s Seventh blaring over the climactic scene in an effort to manipulate the audience’s emotions, and those lingering shots of Colin Firth, then Geoffrey Rush, then Firth, then Rush, and back again — but this is still the kind of big Oscar-bait prestige picture that moviegoers should feel lucky is still being made. (Septuagenarian screenwriter David Seidler has been working on the project for decades.)
4. “The Kids Are All Right”: I enjoyed it at the time (July), but not much about the film has really stuck in my memory — with the exception of Annette Bening’s heartbreaking performance, which still resonates.
5. “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work”: Celebrities are all over TV these days, allegedly baring their personal lives. But in truth, nothing about their reality shows is very real — they’re fake, they’re overly scripted, they’re superficial. This doc, on the other hand, is an uncommonly revealing portrait of an aging star who doesn’t dare stop and smell the roses for fear that a younger, harder-working comic will sprint right past her. Even if you don’t think you like Joan Rivers, chances are you’ll feel sympathetic towards her by the end of the film.
It’s time for the fifth annual National Just Read More Novels Month, the annual rejoinder to November’s way-more-popular-for-some-reason NaNoWriMo. Personally, I’m combining NaJuReMoNoMo with the brand-new TBR Pile Challenge, which asks you to “finally read 12 books from your ‘to be read’ pile, within 12 months.” Since most of my TBR pile is fiction, they work well together.
The TBR Challenge rule: “Each of these 12 books must have been on your bookshelf or ‘To Be Read’ list for AT LEAST one full year.” The NaJuReMoNoMo rules: must be a novel; start and finish within the 31-day window. The TBR Pile Challenge gives you a full year, and you have to post your list by the 15th of January. So here’s mine.
1. Tom Perrotta, The Abstinence Teacher
Time on TBR pile: 2 years; my mom was kind enough to buy it for me at a Perrotta book signing in Florida.
Why haven’t I read it yet?: I love Perrotta’s other books, but the whole “culture wars” theme put me off. (Joe read it, though.)
2. Laura Lippman, Life Sentences
Time on TBR pile: About a year
Why haven’t I read it yet?: I keep forgetting which of her books I still need to read. She’s prolific. But judging from the jacket copy, I definitely haven’t read this one yet.
3. T.C. Boyle, Drop City
Time on TBR pile: About a year
Why haven’t I read it yet?: I love Boyle, but I simply haven’t gotten around to it. Like a couple of the other books on this list, I bought it at a library book sale for a dollar and added it to the ever-growing pile.
4. Steve Hamilton, Winter of the Wolf Moon
Time on TBR pile: Nine years (!). I read and enjoyed his first book, A Cold Day In Paradise, and bought the follow-up at a bookstore that has been defunct for at least half a decade now.
Why haven’t I read it yet?: Not sure; maybe because it’s a mass market paperback and I prefer hardcovers or trade paperbacks.
5. William Kent Krueger, Red Knife
Time on TBR pile: About a year
Why haven’t I read it yet?: I’m a fan of the series, but Red Knife‘s theme of gang violence/retribution didn’t appeal; I actually skipped this one and read the two books that came out afterward, Heaven’s Keep and Vermilion Drift.
6. Tana French, The Likeness
Time on TBR pile: About a year
Why haven’t I read it yet?: Her first book, In the Woods, was compelling, but the plot line of The Likeness (policewoman impersonates a dead girl, manages to fool her housemates and friends) seems ridiculous.
7. Jennifer Vanderbes, Easter Island
Time on TBR pile: A couple of years
Why haven’t I read it yet?: I vaguely remembered good reviews, and the idea of a novel set on Easter Island grabbed me; just not enough to make me read the book. Another library sale purchase.
8. Chris Bohjalian, The Double Bind
Time on TBR pile: A couple of years
Why haven’t I read it yet?: I have been meaning to read something by Bohjalian for several years now, but haven’t gotten around to it. Yet more from the library sale.
9. Jonathan Tropper, The Book of Joe
Time on TBR pile: Seven years
Why haven’t I read it yet?: Picked up the ARC at a trade show back in 2004, because of the title (my husband is named Joe, har har). I read Tropper’s acclaimed This Is Where I Leave You after its release in 2009, so it seems time to delve into his back catalog.
10. Doug Dorst, Alive in Necropolis
Time on TBR pile: Two years
Why haven’t I read it yet?: I bought this when it was San Francisco’s One City, One Book pick back in the summer of ’09. I enjoy locally-set mystery fiction. And yet something’s held me back from cracking it.
11. Christa Faust, Money Shot
Time on TBR pile: About a year
Why haven’t I read it yet?: I always get hooked by the sleazy retro covers on those Hard Case Crime paperbacks, but once I get them home they seem a little too louche.
12. S.J. Rozan, Absent Friends
Time on TBR pile: Seven years
Why haven’t I read it yet?: Purchased because I’m a fan of Rozan’s Bill Smith/Lydia Chin mystery series. This one’s a stand-alone novel about the aftermath of 9/11. How often do you say to yourself, “I’d really like to read about the aftermath of 9/11″? Probably never. Maybe I’ll finally finish it by 9/11/11.
The TBR Pile Challenge rules state that “Two (2) alternates are allowed, just in case one or two of the books end up in the ‘can’t get through’ pile,” so I’m going to name two nonfiction titles: Jen Trynin’s Everything I’m Cracked Up To Be and Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards. Both have been on my shelf for at least four years each.
1. “Travesties,” Tom Stoppard (Marin Shakespeare, August): “Travesties” is a New York Times Saturday crossword of a play: difficult, but satisfying when you finally master it. I’ve seen “Travesties” a number of times, and I would guess that it’s the play’s mix of intellectual heft and comedy that keeps it interesting, the smarty-pants in-jokes that assume familiarity with James Joyce and Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. (After seeing it for the first time, I was moved to check out “The Importance of Being Earnest,” which plays a major role in the proceedings.) At a bad production of “Travesties,” you’ll overhear people at intermission complaining that they just don’t get it. A good production of “Travesties” — and this one was very good indeed — makes it seem almost effortless.
2. “The Norman Conquests,” Alan Ayckbourn (Shotgun Players, August): It was yet another ambitious year for Shotgun Players; every time they announce a new slate of plays, I worry that this will be the year they fly, Icarus-like, too close to the sun, but considering the fact that three of their productions made the Chronicle‘s Top Ten list, I’d venture to say that 2010 was their most successful year yet. But despite their often-brilliant heavyweight dramas, like “God’s Ear” and the two “Salt Plays,” I have to go with my heart, and nothing in 2010 put a smile on my face like “The Norman Conquests.” A three-play set of very 70s British sex farces, “Norman” gives you several different points of view of an eventful weekend at an English country house — “Table Manners” is set in the dining room, “Living Together” in the living room, and “Round and Round the Garden” in (natch) the garden. Richard Reinholdt’s Norman was gleefully impish, a born seducer with a twinkle in his eye.
3. “Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews?,” Josh Kornbluth (The Jewish Theater, April): I had the good fortune of experiencing this play in its formative stage, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, and in its finished form a year or so later. Somehow, the monologue had been recast — from a series of anecdotes, in which Josh sort of seemed like he was trying to justify his commission from the CJM (and admitting that at first, he wasn’t particularly moved by the ten portraits Andy Warhol created of famous Jews, from Golda Meir to the Marx Brothers) — into a mesmerizing show, with a strong through-line about Josh’s own rediscovery of his Jewish roots. Happily, this is one 2010 show you’ll have the chance to catch in ’11, as it’ll be performed at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley next month.
4. “Fences,” August Wilson (Cort Theater, NYC, April): Putting movie stars in Broadway plays is usually a reliable way to generate boffo box office, but it’s not always an artistic success. Denzel Washington, however, slipped into the role of washed-up ballplayer Troy Maxson so effortlessly that after a few minutes, I forgot that I was watching Denzel! and just got caught up in the magnificent and moving story. Viola Davis was every bit his equal as Troy’s wife Rose; both of them went home with Tonys. This was a once-in-a-lifetime theatrical experience, one I felt privileged to have witnessed.
5. “Sylvia,” A.R. Gurney (Altarena Playhouse, May): Yes, I’m a dog lover, so who am I to resist this funny yet poignant show about an empty nester who adopts a rambunctious mutt? The gimmick is that the dog is played by an actress — Sarah Jessica Parker memorably tackled the role on Broadway; Analisa Svehaug did a smashing job of playing the pooch in this well-staged community theater production, yet another that reminded me that the Bay Area really is brimming with talent. (“Sylvia” also proves that theater doesn’t have to be expensive to be good — Broadway tix may set you back around $125, but you can frequently get a Goldstar discount and catch a local show for ten bucks. And you never know — today’s local thespian may become tomorrow’s Hollywood star.)
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- Janet Appel on A Reader’s Voyage
- vallery feldman on A Reader’s Voyage
- Bill Gottfried on A Reader’s Voyage
- Janet Rudolph on A Reader’s Voyage
- Sue on A Reader’s Voyage