Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “Shakespeare”

A Terrible Modern Man – Tom Rossi

Those of you who know me or at least know some of my writings are probably wondering who I could mean when I say, “A terrible modern man.” Could it be George Bush? Dick Cheney? Newt Gingrich? No, no, no. Those are examples of terrible government officials… and maybe even terrible human beings.

No, I’m talking about myself. I don’t seem to be well adapted to life in this period. I think I would have done better in the paleolithic.

Modern life demands certain things, like that you make money. For most of us, this isn’t so easy because we have to make enough to pay rent or a mortgage, buy decent food, pay for transportation, pay for health insurance (or save up for the inevitable leg amputation after a Tiger attack), buy clothing, take care of the kids in various ways, pay for electricity and phones, etc., etc., etc.

Life in the modern world demands that a person find some niche in which to earn a living and then concentrate on that one thing to the exclusion of all else. Most Americans (like so much of the world) have an incredibly narrow, monotonous job, doing the same task, over and over. Whether it’s welding together an endless series of pieces of metal of the same shape and size, or it’s checking over insurance applications for errors, it’s SSDD – Same S***, Different Day.

There are, of course, jobs that have lots of variety, but those represent a tiny fraction of the jobs in America and they require either a lot of specific training, a special talent, or both. This in itself means developing some ability to the exclusion of other interests.

This is what I just can’t seem to do. There are jobs out there that I would love. But I’d have to pick an area to study and train – a much more narrow area than the broad studies I’ve done so far. I have this terrible fear that, once I’ve chosen and spent much effort, I’ll find out that there’s no demand for that specialty, but if I’d just chosen something a little different, I’d be fine.

This indecision is somewhat new to me since my brain got cut open by Dr. Spetzler a few years ago. He did a miraculous job, but something like that is bound to have some lasting effects.

These days, Oprah and others are always talking about “finding your true vocation,” or something like that. But I always feel like they’re talking to people who have worked for years at a very successful career and have $250,000 in the bank.

But the thing that bothers me about the modern world is that there seems to be no room for the generalist. Plenty of scientists, economists, and policy wonks have said that generalists – broadly trained in several different disciplines and capable of synthesis between and across many areas – are exactly what’s needed, now. But I see no job announcements for these (my) types. The jobs are always for someone who has drilled down in some super-specific discipline and is a stone-cold expert in something like the effects of soil calcium concentration on the growth of orange-skinned casaba melons in northwestern Zimbabwe.

That’s what you do in graduate school – drill down. Drill down because you need to do a study that can be completed in two years, all by yourself, and then write a dissertation all by yourself too.

But real life is all about teamwork. And this isn’t just my own brand of idealism… it’s a fact. I’m a great team-player, but I find it very difficult to do the solo work that might lead to the opportunity to be on a team, someday. I find it too difficult to choose because I want to be that generalist. But generalists in science and policy are only the people at the highest levels – those who have worked their way to the top of some organization like an NGO. And because the way these individuals have been successful was to be really good at something tiny and specific, they often see their new, generalist appointment from a narrow perspective that reflects the specific discipline that they know so well.

Oh well. Maybe my future is as a contestant on Jeopardy. But I just know they’re going to get me with that damn Shakespeare category.

-Tom Rossi


Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.


Christopher Moore – As Left Coast As They Get

When Christopher Moore offers a book signing in San Francisco, people flock to hear and meet him. When he launched his last novel, Fool, more than 300 hundred people lined up around the perimeter of Books Inc eager to have him sign copies of their books or to exchange a word. I had gone hoping for a little chat…some chance!

But Moore didn’t become a cult hero in San Francisco because of his parody of Shakespeare (Fool) or even the book that launched him, the irreverent and hilarious tale at the first 30 years of Jesus’ life (Lamb). What has enabled Moore to gain such status here are his three books about vampires in San Francisco.

The Man – as funny in person as on the page.

Please don’t bother if you want to be terrified, or if you seek Stephanie Meyer romance. Christopher Moore wrote the book (excuse the pun)  on how to create characters, bind them to a city, and have people begging for more. This is why I chose to write about him during California Writer’s Week and on Saturday for my “Writer’s Corner.”

At the book launch that I just mentioned, the questions were not about either his latest book or Lamb, it was all about the books that bound him to our city, and why we claim Christopher Moore as one of our authors, even though he lives in SoCal.

A Dirty Job, Bloodsucking Fiends – A Love Story, and (after he released Fool) Bite Me, all contain three vital ingredients: a vivid city, engaging characters, and that extra ingredient – in Moore’s case, his wicked sense of humor.

With such a combination, Christopher Moore came up from Santa Barbara and conquered the heart of our fair city. He deserves his place in my California’ Writer’s Week.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Why We Read Fantasy 2

Last weekend, I shared some comments from adults who we asked why they read fantasy. A friend sent me this article by Lev Grossman, author of “The Magicians” and the recently released “The Magician King.”

In the article, Grossman talks about the excitement generated by the release of George R.R. Martin’s “A Dance With Dragons.”

“The book has brought with it, along with the feverish excitement of fans like myself, a whiff of burning insulation. There’s a cultural short circuit happening somewhere in the system.”

What I believe is creating the stir is the fact that while Mr. Martin’s work is clearly fantasy, it does not adhere to the formulaes of such leaders as  J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Martin includes a fair helping of blood and sex in his continent of Westeros than the Pevensie children ever saw in Narnia. Something has changed.

Grossman shares his frustration at the perception that fantasy is for children and adults who are in denial that they are adults and seeking some escapism. “I see it all the time. I’ll be at a dinner party, and the person next to me asks me what I do. I’m a novelist, I’ll say, and a little light of hopeful interest kindles in their eyes. What kind of novels do you write? the dinner guest asks. And I reply: fantasy novels. And just like that, the little light of hopeful interest dies away.”This story really resonates with me. Every week at the Berkeley Writers Group, I meet new people and introduce myself as an author of political fiction. Then when I prepare to read my weekly offering, I apologetically explain that I wrote a fantasy novel with my eldest son. All true of course, but I am conscious that I am using it as justification.

Why? Grossman goes on to say: “It hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when adults read fantasy with impunity. The classical literature of Greece and Rome is so fantastical that you can’t swing a cat without hitting a god or a witch or a centaur, and chances are the cat will turn out to be somebody’s long-lost son-in-law in transfigured form.”

Right on! Stephen Wenster backs him up by asking where “would Shakespeare have been without fantasy—his spirits, his ghosts and the witches three of Macbeth?”

Apparently fantasy, without being labeled as a genre was prominent throughout literature history: “Where would Spenser’s “Faerie Queene” be without fairies? Where would Shakespeare have been without fantasy—his spirits, his ghosts, and his proto-Orc Caliban, the misshapen villain of “The Tempest”? You can’t have Macbeth without the witches three. Apart from everything else, who would have handled all that crucial exposition of the play’s plot?”

Lev Grossman

Grossman, who holds a Ph.D in Comparative Literature,  acknowledges that around the time of Samuel Johnson. Perhaps they actually began to believe that ghosts and magic really didn’t exist.

Again, Lev Grossman: “A fascination with the here and the now and the real set in. This was the moment when the novel arose in the West, and it was an ideal medium to satisfy that fascination. Novels were about the way we live now. There was no Caliban on Robinson Crusoe’s island, just the eminently human Friday.
“In 1750, Samuel Johnson wrote an influential essay in praise of fiction that was about “life in its true state, diversified only by accidents that daily happen in the world.” As far as he was concerned, a good novel “can neither employ giants to snatch away a lady from the nuptial rites, nor knights to bring her back from captivity; it can neither bewilder its personages in deserts, nor lodge them in imaginary castles.” Thus admonished, ghosts and witches went off to live in fairy tales and allegories and gothic novels and other disreputable places.”
So history is against us, perhaps because people really did believe in magic and ghosts.  But I do believe that the fact that we all accept that there is nothing factual in elves, dwarfs etc. allows us to focus on allowing values to play a prominent role because, as Grossman say: “If anything, it is realist literature that pretends to be real. Fantasy doesn’t pretend.”

Fantasy is one of the few literary genres left where it is still considered okay to explore questions of moral judgment. But that’s not a bad thing. When the powerless and good become empowered and are able to change the destiny of their world, there is something that resonates in a world where so many feel alienated and disenfranchised. When coming-of-age can happen at any age, why would an adult still hoping to leave his/her mark on the world not be attracted to such novels?

As Grossman says: “It’s one of the great human stories” and I suspect this is why fantasy novels will continue to draw a big crowd of adults who want to still believe that we can make a difference in our world.


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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Blog Musings

I recently wrote about a Q&A at Borders in Pleasanton that focused around the blog strategy that I am following. According to the model, I need to reach 1,000 posts to create a sustaining platform that will stimulate regular cold book sales.

There are between 250-300 million blogs out there. Yesterday, I reached 250 posts – a quarter of the way to my goal – and I decided to peek at Left Coast Voice’s world rankings on Alexa.

My blog now stands at 9,644,958, which means inside the top 10 million (bear with me). The goal is to reach the top 0.5% as these are the blogs that generate income. So, even allowing for only 250 million blogs in the world, I have comfortably entered the top 5%.

I’m moving up!


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/

A Place For The N Word

Last month I listened to Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Two factors were involved in this decision. Firstly, having been educated in the land of Chaucer and Shakespeare, I am woefully ignorant of classical literature in the country I now reside. Secondly, I was about to travel to Louisiana and work a stones’ throw from the banks of the Mississippi.

Just when I began the book, the N-word controversy exploded. NewSouth Books, a publisher based in Alabama, announced it plans to release a new edition in February wherein the word “nigger” is replaced by “slave.”

The word appears 219 times in all, it is hard to miss. I was listening when my 12 year-old got into the car and the word was spoken twice. My son, a proud product of Berkeley tolerance, was shocked. We had a long conversation about literature and artistic license. We have already had a number of discussions as to why I can write swear words and have them published, words that he is not allowed to say.

JULIE BOSMAN in an excellent New York Times article – Publisher Tinkers With Twain – explains that the idea came from Alan Gribben, a professor of English at Auburn University in Montgomery.  The professor has been teaching Mark Twain for decades and talked about always feeling uncomfortable when reading out loud a common racial epithet.

“I found myself right out of graduate school at Berkeley not wanting to pronounce that word when I was teaching either ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Tom Sawyer,’ ” he said. “And I don’t think I’m alone.”

Mr. Gribben, believes that Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have dropped off of many reading lists and wants to make the books more accessible.

“I’m by no means sanitizing Mark Twain,” Mr. Gribben said. “The sharp social critiques are in there. The humor is intact. I just had the idea to get us away from obsessing about this one word, and just let the stories stand alone.” (The book also substitutes “Indian” for “injun.”).

Does he have a point? While my ancestors were enslaved in Egypt a few centuries ago, it is not part of our scarred psyche – there are far too many more recent acts that scar the Jewish  people. So I am unclear whether I should have a say in the debate.

I would love to hear from people of color whose ancestors were slaves in America. Would you share your opinions in the comments?

Either way, the special relationship that develops between Huck and Jim is what makes this novel so special. It is a timeless lesson in companionship, as relevant today as ever before.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

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