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Miscelleaneous Miscellany: Its a Complex World.Or Is It?

17 Aug

Colbert, Stewart and now Key & Peele

One of the art world’s more significant confabs is the Venice Biennale.This year the gathering took a decidedly political direction:

…In building the archive, and a related project called “The Guantanamo Effect,” Ghani (Mariam Ghani, an Afghan-American artist based in Brooklyn, N.Y. explained: “We noticed that ideas, policies and personnel circulated among all the different U.S.-run prisons in the world. So, first you have U.S. corrections officers and U.S. policemen who are deployed as military police to Afghanistan when they’re called up in the National Guard Reserves. They end up in Abu Ghraib, they end up in Bagram,” sites of horrible prisoner abuse and torture. “Ultimately, the policies, the techniques and now even the military equipment circulate back into the U.S., into our domestic sphere,” she continued. “It’s become extremely visible with the recirculation of military surplus equipment from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into domestic police departments and even into school police departments. We saw this extremely visibly in Ferguson, Missouri.”

HE’s no Bo

Bo Knows

The Gulf

The Gulf

Excerpt from The Gulf edited by Andrew Ross (O/R Books)

The roaring wealth of the Persian Gulf states derives from high-yield petroleum reservoirs far beneath the desert sands. But the lustrous towers and grand villas that support the de luxe lives of the region’s elites are not the direct result of slow organic decomposition underground. The gleaming cityscapes of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha, and Bahrain are being assembled, at boomtown speed, from the hard-pressed labor of armies of migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and, increasingly, North and East Africa. Bound to an employer by the kafala sponsorship system, the laborers arrive, heavily indebted from recruitment and transit fees, only to find that their Gulf Dream has been a mirage1 [see footnotes at end of excerpt]. Typically, the sponsoring employer takes their passports, houses them in substandard labor camps, pays them much less than they were promised, and enforces a punishing work regimen under the hot desert sun. Most of them find ways to endure the exploitation, but many fall prey to suicide, or die from overwork or the heat. If they voice their complaints or protest publicly, they are arrested, beaten, and deported.

More from The Gulf

The Gulf states are hardly alone in their dependence on tragically underpaid and ill-treated migrant workers. Every developed and fast developing country has its own record of shame. But these nations are in a league of their own. The opulent lifestyle of a minority—composed of citizens and corporate expats—is maintained by a vast majority (up to 90 percent in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar) who function as a servant class, with no rights and very little mobility, and whose compliant labor is secured through the fear of abuse and deportation. Their plight is so acute that, in recent years, the push to reform the cruel kafala system (instituted as a temporary guest program in the early 1970s) has become an international cause.

By the end of 2014, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which comprises Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), was facing down a flood of overseas pressure to dismantle the kafala system. Spearheaded by Human Rights Watch, more than 90 human rights groups, many from the workers’ countries of origin, signed a call for wide-ranging reforms of labor migration policies. Following allegations by the International Trade Union Confederation of “exploitative practices that may amount to forced labour,” the International Labor Organization (ILO) launched an official investigation of the UAE.3 Amnesty International released a report, titled There is No Freedom Here, on the treatment of political dissenters in the Emirates.4 In response to the soaring death toll among the Nepalese working on Doha’s construction spree, FIFA, the global football federation, was hotly petitioned by its European members to insist on labor reforms as a condition of Qatar’s hosting the 2022 World Cup.5 Investigative journalists from leading media organizations routinely filed front-page stories about the human cost of importing a workforce so vulnerable to abuse…

And at the Venice Biennale the Gulf Labor Coalition exhorts

The Gulf Labor Coalition panel at the 2015 Venice Biennale on July 29 (all photos by Andrea Avezzù, courtesy la Biennale di Venezia)

The Gulf Labor Coalition panel at the 2015 Venice Biennale on July 29 (all photos by Andrea Avezzù, courtesy la Biennale di Venezia)

“Most of [the workers] discover at their arrival that they will be paid much less than expected and have their passport confiscated by the recruitment agency, which is an illegal procedure anywhere in the world,” explained a representative of the International Trade Union of Building Workers (ITUBC). He went on to describe the Gulf nations as an open prison for migrant workers: “In Qatar also many migrants workers are building the facilities for the FlFA World Cup, which will be held in 2022, in the same conditions as those in Abu Dhabi. Like the Guggenheim and the Louvre do, FIFA claims that the security and well-being of the workers are the local government’s responsibility.”

Ichiro Ties Ty

As far as I can tell the only thing smug Whole Foods CEO Mackey is correct about is the “Whole Foods, Whole Paycheck” joke is as stale as his reactionary views. Would have been to much to ask him about the various thumbs-on-the-scale Whole Foods stands accused of?Though generally credited as a good place to work, there is this kind of thing which is just ugly. Judge for yourself as Historian Mackey
offers self serving analysis and pretzel logic

Position player pitches to Orioles pitcher

Of the things I want to know about the US President, his reading list and Spotify play list are not among those.

RIP Julian Bond

Miscellaneous Miscellany: 14 August 2015

14 Aug

The Baffler (magazine) is in the vanguard of the movement to celebrate public intellectuals as the September 10th celebration for George Scialabba attests September 10. By the way,that date has been designated George Scialabba Day by the Cambridge City Council.

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

George Sciallabba [photo: Robert Birnbaum]

To be found in Baffler Issue 26, …”Stumble along with George Scialabba through a lifetime of therapy for chronic depression.”

Baffler Issue No 26

Baffler Issue No 26

Our Man in Boston being in the vanguard of efforts to celebrate public intellectuals, chatted with George [Scialabba]on subjects near and dear and far and wide…

RB: In reading this Baffler article, it is not apparent that you ever give yourself credit for doing good and useful work. Your writing has been recognized by smart people everywhere. Didn’t that make you feel better?

GS: Eventually, it did. Saved my life, really. But it took a long while.

RB: Why?

GS: (long pause) Because there were lots of people my age doing what I was doing, a lot more successfully than me.

RB: Well, what was your criterion of success?

GS: I suppose quantity and visibility. I would see Sven Birkerts)5 or Paul Berman or Ellen Willis appearing in the New Yorker

Go Cubbies —winners of last 10 of 11 games.Another rookie makes an impact

Ann Bardach is a reliable narrator of the unfolding Cuba story.Here she spotlights Brother Raul

Raul Castro[borrowed from Politco]

Raul Castro[borrowed from Politco]

A smart team of filmmmakers turns Alice Munro’s short story “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage” into a fine film with Guy Pearce, Kristin Wiig and up-and-comer Hailee Steinfield (True Grit, Begin Again )

Want to see what 96 million black plastic balls look like. Of course you do


The New York Times has fallen on hard times—how else to explain using a photograph from Facebook


96 million waterfilled black plastic balls is a story— Bloomberg asks the important question:

Ed Osann, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council,told Bloomberg that the shade balls probably won’t release any toxic materials into the water supply. (NRDC has not yet responded to a request for comment.)


UGGIE,  star of  Academy Award winning 'The Artist'

UGGIE, star of Academy Award winning ‘The Artist’

RIP Uggie

Young Sport Center anchors Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick

Young Sport Center anchors Keith Olbermann and Dan Patrick

I am not ashamed to admit my admiration for the mercurial and occasionally bombastic Keith Olbermann, especially his “Worst Person in the World” awards. In some ways this plaudit was low hanging fruit as there have always been may candidates. In a bow to Olbermann’s intention, albeit with a positive twist,Our Man in Bostn inaugurates the DIOGENES AWARD, paying homage to a dwindling population of truth tellers.


First up is diogenian police reporter turned film maker David Simon whose The Wire has achieved legendary status and whose newest effort Show Me a Hero*debuts August 16 on HBO. Here Simon and Cory Booker chat about the Future of Cities

I am going to risk overexposing Simon by pointing out his recent interview at the Daily Beast and pointing you to a very smart spot-on take on Simon and Show Me a Hero by Andy Greenwald

Well, we are coming up on the 10th anniversary of the natural disaster known ( like supermodel) as Katrina. There is a striking similarity between this metereological event and the great 1927 Mississippi Flood. both of which proved the federal government unable or uninterested in helping out a drowned delta. Tom Franklin and Beth Fenelly’s novel The Twisted World does an excellent job of making vivid the 1927 debacle.

NYT reporter Gary Rivlin adds to the significant Katrina bibliography** Katrina: After the Flood. Simon and Schuster describe Katrina

This book traces the stories of New Orleanians of all stripes—politicians and business owners, teachers and bus drivers, poor and wealthy, black and white—as they confront the aftermath of one of the great tragedies of our age and reconstruct, change, and in some cases abandon a city that’s the soul of this nation.

* about which I will have more to say…
** about which I will have more to say…

What’s the Hitch?

17 Jan

Unhitched by Richard seymour

Unhitched by Richard seymour

One delight that Christopher Hitchens death has precluded is the intellectual mayhem that would have been loosed by the publication of Richard Seymour’s Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens (Verso).In a recent interview, Seymour suggests as much,”…

Seymour is hopeful that if he was alive today, Hitchens “might have had a bit of a laugh” about Unhitched. “One thing in his favour is that he was narcissistic but not prickly or vain,” he said. “I think he would have thrown an insult or two at me. He described Max Blumenthal as ‘a young skunk who hasn’t learned to piss yet’ and I think I could expect something along those lines.”

“It is written in the spirit of a trial, I do attempt to get a sense of the complexity and gifts of the man, but it is very clearly a prosecution, and you can guess my conclusion.” asserts Seymour. Though this indictment of Hitchens is more rigorous and detailed, Seymour has had at Hitchens previously— upon Hitchens being awarded the Orwell Prize; Seymour opined :

In a sense, it seems odd to think of Christopher Hitchens as an Orwellian. Here was a writer who, at his best, wrote with panache, lapidary refinement and a wide tonal range. One of his most damning adjectives was “atonal”. It’s hard to see much of Hitchens in the spare, terse prose of George Orwell. Nor is there much of Orwell in the Hitchens who became a Beltway gossip columnist, and later an amanuensis of the Bush administration. Yet, as someone for whom political writing was a literary effort, Orwell loomed large as a paragon of committed writing.

If nothing else,Hitch would certainly been flattered by the serious attention Seymour’s brief represents. Again, Seymour observes,

One chapter deals with the trajectory of his political shift, from the time he was a young socialist who joined Labour,” said Seymour. “I’ve interviewed a lot of his former comrades. If you read [Hitchens’ memoir] Hitch 22, it’s not an entirely reliable account – what he remembers and what others remember are different. He’s subtly, and sometimes not so subtly, revised things.

Christopher Hitchens by Robert Birnbaum

Christopher Hitchens by Robert Birnbaum

I was granted the amusement of conversing with Christopher Hitchens twice—conversations that can be found on the Internet as well as rich cache of Hitchens’ literary memorabilia. He was quite entertaining and vividly present. RIP

Currently reading The River Swimmer by Jim HArrison (Grove Atlantic)


7 Aug

The recent passing of Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens, Alexander Cockburn, Robert Hughes and William Gay and the panegyric outpourings that have necessarily followed has given me pause to ruminate on the mortality of the writer. Or said in another way, their immortality —to wonder how or if future readers and thinkers will seek out the words and pages of our era’s literary torch bearers. Which leads me to a riveting tome focused on Algerian writer Albert Camus— Albert Camus: Solitude and Solidarity (Edition Olms)edited by his daughter Catherine.

Albert Camus: Solitude and Solidarity by Catherine Camus

Camus died in a car crash at the age of 46 in 1960.Having won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years earlier, Camus as a writer, journalist,playwright and activist managed to leave a substantial body of work. Catherine Camus weavers samples from his works with an array of photographs photographs and archival material—some seeing the light of day for the first time.Robert Zaretsky has a well-considered and useful appreciation of both Camus and his daughter’s celebration of her long dead father. He opines:

For Camus, much of life could be, if not summed up, at least suggested with the image of the desert. The semi-arid plateaus of the Atlas Mountains and Sahara frame most of the short stories of Exile and the Kingdom. This sun-blasted sea of sand and rocks refuses to surrender an answer to characters and readers in search of meaning. And yet, as is the case with Daru, the hero of Camus’s most haunting story, “The Guest,” …

…The desert sculpted not only Camus’s sense of worldly solitude, but also his solidarity with the rest of humankind subject to the same exile. The desert was the scene of political and ideological crimes committed by France that Camus denounced as a journalist. There is a grainy photograph of the young Camus, dapper in a suit, tie, and overcoat, one hand plunged into his pocket, surrounded by fellow reporters and typesetters — many of whom are holding copies of their newspaper L’Alger Républicain. The young man, his face slightly tilted and one leg set firmly ahead of the other, stares directly at the camera. We see the same confident focus on Camus’s face in the photo of his university soccer team: he crouches over the ball, leaning toward the camera with an eager smile. His duty as a journalist was scarcely different from his task as goalie: the last line of defense against the press of those committed to his team’s defeat.

It worth glancing at Camus’s Nobel Banquet speech:

Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where mediocre powers can destroy all yet no longer know how to convince, where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression, this generation starting from its own negations has had to re-establish, both within and without, a little of that which constitutes the dignity of life and death. In a world threatened by disintegration, in which our grand inquisitors run the risk of establishing forever the kingdom of death, it knows that it should, in an insane race against the clock, restore among the nations a peace that is not servitude, reconcile anew labour and culture, and remake with all men the Ark of the Covenant. It is not certain that this generation will ever be able to accomplish this immense task, but already it is rising everywhere in the world to the double challenge of truth and liberty and, if necessary, knows how to die for it without hate. Wherever it is found, it deserves to be saluted and encouraged, particularly where it is sacrificing itself. In any event, certain of your complete approval, it is to this generation that I should like to pass on the honour that you have just given me.

And in case you need a little context or a refresher here’s David Berger short documentary on Camus and Sartre.

Currently reading Dare Me By Megan Abbott (Reagan Arthur Books)

Biting the Apple or Original Sin

6 Oct

The passing of Steve Jobs is being dealt with in the manner of a deity which seems appropriate considering how many people daily genuflect before an appliance or device adorned with the too-clever-by-half bitten-into-apple logo (as I am doing right now). What ever paeans,panegyrics and encomiums you chose to read, Apple Design (Hatje Cantz) a book that serves as the exhibition catalogue for Stylectrical. On Electro-Design That Makes History at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg is a powerful testimonial to what Apple, Jobs and Jonathan Ive (Senior Vice President of Industrial Design) have wrought.

This large tome features over 300 superb;y printed images, mostly of Apple products with accompanying essays and explications by various of the MKG’s curators (Edited by Sabine Schulze, Ina Grätz, foreword by Sabine Schulze, texts by Friedrich von Borries, Bernhard Bürdek, Ina Grätz, Harald Klinke, Bernd Polster, Henry Urbach, Thomas Wagner, Peter Zec,) And as a nod and a bow to the forefather of superior industrial design, “Ten Rules for Good Design” as promulgated by Braun’s chief designer, Dieter Rams, are included.

I will leave it to others to conclude whether dying people have more (or any) wisdom than the rest of us. But just as Carnegie Mellon’s Randy Pautsch’s(can I say he was a victim of pancreatic cancer) The Last Lectureincited great waves of interest and conversation, apparently Steve Jobs’s 2005 Stanford Commencement Address is becoming something of as they say a “viral”video.

Personally, I find this too much information to digest in one lifetime—but that’s just me.

Currently Reading The Revisionists by Thomas Mullins (Mullholland Books)

Iris Chang and The Rape of Nanking

24 Jun

I was aware of what is now called The Rape of Nanking, Japan’s entry into the Atrocity Sweepstakes (by this I do not mean to trivialize or make light of the horrors of this ugly episode but to suggest that there are many such unacknowledged crimes in human history) when I talked with Iris Chang in 2003 but I had not read her well received and much lauded book The Rape of Nanking. Our conversation focused on her newly published The Chinese in America: A Narrative History which was a serviceable and enlightening survey of another previously ignored subject in American history.

Sadly and shockingly, Iris Chang committed suicide a few years later.Speculation abounded that a depression resulting from her expose of this second holocaust(eventually costing between 200,000 and 300,000 lives) and the persistent, unshakeable image of a photo of a river choked with the bodies of hundreds of Chinese civilians. Oddly, having only met her once I was still contacted regularly by puzzled individuals requesting my opinion. I put down this grabbing for straws as the shock of suicide.

Now come two items that continue this complex narrative. Iris’s mother,Ying-Ying Chang has written The Woman Who Could Not Forget: Iris Chang Before and Beyond The Rape of Nanking (Pegasus) which is touching account of Chang’s life and struggles and moved by the imperative that Iris Chang’s life and legacy not be defined by her final act. Most significant is Ying Ying’s claim,”I believe Iris’s suicide was caused by her [prescribed] medications.”

The newly released film City of Life and Death by the Chinese writer-director Lu Chuan, as Richard Shickel reports is:

the second film about Nanking, and it is a work that aspires to the definitive and almost achieves that status. It is shot in black and white, often with hand-held cameras, so that it has the look and feel of an epic newsreel. What is perhaps more remarkable about this film is its evenhandedness. The press notes about it stress the fact Nanking remains, to this day, central to the relationship between China and Japan—a source of suspicion, not to say hatred, on the part of the former. It therefore required courage on Lu Chuan’s part to undertake what amounts to a more or less objective and determinedly non-sensational account of this story.

So it goes.

RIP Joe Bageant

28 Mar

The media shitstream was so engorged last week (who really cares about the passing of a mediocre actress?) that I missed a really important piece of news—the passing of (self-styled ) redneck commentator Joe Bageant (Deer Hunting with Jesus,, Rainbow Pie: A Redneck Memoir ):

Q: How do you know if you are rich, middle class or poor in America?

A: When you go to work, if your name is on the building — you’re rich; if your name is on an office door — you’re middle class; if your name is on your shirt — you’re poor…and, if someone else’s name is on your hand-me-down work shirt.

Here’s a few moments of Joe

It’s well worth looking at one of Bageant’s last essays,America, Your Peeps are So Dumb? Ignorance and courage in the age of Lady Gaga:

If you hang out much with thinking people, conversation eventually turns to the serious political and cultural questions of our times. Such as: How can the Americans remain so consistently brain-fucked? Much of the world, including plenty of Americans, asks that question as they watch U.S. culture go down like a thrashing mastodon giving itself up to some Pleistocene tar pit.

One explanation might be the effect of 40 years of deep fried industrial chicken pulp, and 44 ounce Big Gulp soft drinks. Another might be pop culture, which is not culture at all of course, but marketing. Or we could blame it on digital autism: Ever watch commuter monkeys on the subway poking at digital devices, stroking the touch screen for hours on end? That wrinkled Neolithic brows above the squinting red eyes?

But a more reasonable explanation is that, (A) we don’t even know we are doing it, and (B) we cling to institutions dedicated to making sure we never find out.

To quote Joe, “We don’t last, and there’s no warranty.” So it goes.

RIP John Ross

3 Feb

I must have missed the New York Times obituary for poet and journalist John Ross who died of the Big C in mid January. Of course, its possible he didn’t fit the news that the Times prints as he was a life long, unrepentant rebel and outspoken warrior for social justice. His last book El Monstruo Dread and Redemption in Mexico City (Nation Books)was a wonderful paean to Mexico City, his home, off and on, for these last many years.

Carl Bromley his editor at Nation Books offered “Of all his books, I think El Monstruo, his last, was my favorite of his, an extraordinary, phantasmagoric personal history of Mexico City, told over the last 5 million years. I rate him with [Eduardo] Galeano.” High praise, indeed.

John Ross lived a good life— to paraphrase Peter Seeger— he did good.

RIP Reynolds Price

21 Jan

Admittedly, I came to Reynolds Price’s work late in his wonderful writing career, having picked up a volume of three long stories (or novellas) The Foreseeable Future and a short novel, The Tongues of Angels by the Duke mentor in the early 90s. I was so favorably impressed that in addition to back tracking through his work I began search out—to great satisfaction— other contemporary Southern writers— Alan Gurganis, Elizabeth Cox, Brad Watson, Larry Brown, Dorothy Allison, Percival Everett and so on.

Price,who has passed to his greater glory yesterday, was referred to by the New YorkTimes
as”a literary voice of the South”, a reasonable and fitting statement of Price’s stature.

I had the privilege of conversing (actually twice or thrice) with the courtly Price who was confined to a wheelchair after surviving a malignant brain tumor and accompanying medical treatments. He was on tour for his most recently published novel at the time, Blue Calhoun:

Robert Birnbaum Is this your best book?

Reynold Price: Well, people are always telling me that this or that is my best book, I don’t have any strong sense that one or the other is best. I like this book a lot, I liked it while I was writing it. I loved Blue’s voice, he was just a good voice to hang around. I enjoyed Kate Vaiden’s voice tremendously. Kate Vaiden was, I think, very important to me because I was embroiled in writing Kate eight years ago when I found out I had cancer and I had to go through all this radiation and this nightmare stuff, and it was somehow really helpful, once I got over the initial depression of it all and got back to work, it was very helpful to sort of undergo a sex change daily. Sort of go in another room and suddenly you’re this woman, this fifty year old woman who’s been an outlaw all her life, kind of a runaway, and you’re inhabiting her. And Blue in a lot of ways is extremely different from me and in other ways he’s very like me, so I’ve, I’m a lifelong mimic. My father was the great village mimic, and everyone was always after him to imitate so and so, and I suppose I wanted to be able to get the kind of effect and the kind of applause that my father got so frequently around me in my childhood.

Robert Birnbaum: Let me ask this in another way, because I don’t understand it either when someone says “Is this your best book?” Does…you have a long career, does the talk about your work, do the critiques of your work, the conversations you have with other writers, the colloquia that you do, what does that do to your writing, how does it affect your writing?

Reynolds Price: I’m not aware that it directly affects it at all. From the very beginning of my career I’ve always tried not to read reviews which I know in advance are going to be bad reviews. And your friends always take very good care that you know that bad reviews have appeared; they always say things like, “Whatever you do, don’t look at the New Yorker,” and of course its like saying, “Do not think of the word hippopotamus in the next thirty seconds,” so you’re dying to go out and look at the New Yorker. But I really do try…you know, a bad review just messes up your morning, so why the hell read it? So I just have pretty well learned not to do that unless I stumble into one, or unless they lure you in by pretending to be respectful in the beginning, you know: “Reynolds Price, distinguished American novelist of a hundred years experience,” and then you suddenly realize he’s about to throw this machete at me in the last paragraph. I’ll tell you what I have done in very recent years that’s been a very new departure for me and that I’ve loved doing, and that is I’ve been teaching writing amongst the other things that I teach at Duke University on a one semester per year basis, and a few years ago I began to realize I was pretty bored with doing that after thirty-four years of it, thirty-odd years, and I decided to make myself a working member of the class. It’s a senior graduate class, so the people in there are from, like twenty-one to late twenties, early thirties, and I simply, I’m the kind of writing teacher who gives assignments, I mean in the beginning I will literally tell them what to write about, or at least give them the subject, like “write a thousand words on the two worst hours of your life, or the two happiest hours of your life.” So I do all of that, and then I write all of the stories that go with it, which, incidentally means that I’ve virtually got a big new book of short stories finished. But I’ve put the stories out, everybody xeroxes each others stories and we all have copies and we all write elaborate notations on each others, and I’ve got an awful lot from doing that. That’s the most intense kind of interaction with intelligent readers that I’ve ever had. I’ve never had an editor and never wanted an editor who was the old Maxwell Perkins type of “Let me write this novel with you.” I would murder anybody. I’m the most anally retentive writer I can think of in terms of “It’s mine and you can’t touch it,” but it’s been wonderful to work with the students on things.

Reynolds Price’s first published novel (1962) was entitled A Long and Happy Life—one hopes that it was a suitable title for this wonderful writer’s life story.

Rest in peace, Reynolds.

RIP John Gross

12 Jan

One of the recent book notices here noted esteemed editor John Gross’s latest excellent anthology, The Oxford Book of Parodies (Oxford University Press). The New York Times reported today that Gross passed away.