Wednesday, July 15, 2020

"Burn down the mission"

Three-fourths of this mission, which was founded in 1771 and had been refurbished for its re-opening this week, after considerable investment, burned in a fire at 4:20 AM on Saturday the 11th.

The roof is gone and the interior charred; however, much of the furnishings were not installed yet after the site was fixed up. "The cause is under investigation" goes the statement in the media. Yes, it has been hot, as usual; unsure if this is by an "act of God." (Many of my formative years were spent in the next parish over....)

A neighboring mission at San Fernando up the "chain of the 21" founded a day's journey apart in the late 1700s and early 1800s in California by Franciscan friars, has been targeted after protests by "Indigenous activists" who called it a "concentration camp." A statue of the newly canonized saint, as posted by me a few weeks ago, had been destroyed similarly, downtown in Los Angeles at the site of the city's founding in 1771. The statue of Fr Serra at San Gabriel Mission a few years ago was removed from the street side (which is named for Junipero Serra) to the garden after someone tried to decapitate it with an electric saw, and who poured red paint on it. Similar tactics as which felled Serra's this past June. Apparently the statue at the SG Mission now has been placed in safekeeping.

Thinking of St Kateri Tekakwitha whose feast day was yesterday, and all the "lily of the Mohawks" suffered, for her dogged decision to side with her convert mother's faith. About the hardship her nation all endured, as the thoughtful film based on Brian Moore's novel Black Robe dramatizes, hearing out all sides. When I visited the site of Sainte-Marie-among-the-Hurons mission in Midlake, Ontario, I noted how "evenhanded" (if unsurprisingly, still a change from how this material might have been framed in an American museum if in pre-"woke" times) the Canadian government's presentation was, as it showed wisely as a preview to us visiting the restored "mission" the complex predicament of three embattled factions there among the Wendat: those who'd accepted Christ, those who remained traditional believers, and those caught in the middle, as plagues came, in the wake of the French, and blame games proliferated.

A timely message. I only hope as a native myself of the region where Franciscans marched in the vanguard of the Spanish empire that sites and symbols of their presence will not be burned or erased in the name of "justice." (See a "progressive" piece in Religion Dispatches written just before destruction at S.G. Mission.) That parish had been preparing for a remodel to display Fr Serra's threatened statue in a context to address the curricular criticisms now standard in the coverage of the missionaries, which admittedly is not that I got in public school fourth-grade (that lesson we few "native Californians" fondly recall is making a model out of flour and water, sugarcubes and popsicle sticks, at least prior to today's kits, which take the fun out of choosing among 21 missions one's favorite inspiration. Not sure if this survives fiercely contested instruction nowadays, given controversies "racist colonialism" generates.)

I was surprised, and moved, by simple plots in dirt, almost popsicle-stick markers, where some Jesuits had been first buried. Contrasted with the Catholic Canadian Martyrs church-shrine down the road, the provincial museum had such unobtrusive signs of the resting places of the missionaries you might miss -- or step on-- them. Reflecting on my visit 12 summers ago, both tributes appear appropriate: the modest simplicity and multi-ethnic ethos of the "secular," and the shrine's legacy where Jesuits continue their apostolate, in the tradition of Ss. Jean de Brébeuf and his companions.

For all the contested attempts of Canada to do justice to First Nations communities and Catholic history, they educate visitors, one may argue or at least hear out, given our Church's complicity. Ontario conservative writer-artist (educated three years in a Catholic hostel for an Inuit boarding school where abuse occurred in the early 1960s) Michael D. O'Brien's novel A Cry of Stone on mid-20c artist Rose Wâbos tells this troubled tale, in his faithful, probing style.

P.S. The parish website: ""We are so grateful for the outpouring of support from our Mission family during this devastating time. We are renewed in our 'Mission' to rebuild our historic Church and will very soon celebrate its restoration. If you would like to make a contribution, please go to our DONATE NOW page and designate your donation to the 'Fire Restoration Fund' or the 'Old Mission and Gardens' tab."

P.P.S. Blog title from this Elton John 1970 song title.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Jon Fine's "Your Band Sucks": Book Review

Your Band Sucks : Jon Fine : 9781494511494 I heard of but never heard Bitch Magnet, the indie band that made Fine a bit famous, but reading his narrative of a quarter-century trying to make a living out of or alongside the van-driving, $10 a day meal allowing, and sweaty ambiance of the clubs and dives where bands played, you come out feeling as if you've finished a long journey by his side.

For an Oberlin grad, he thankfully does not come across as doctrinaire in his outlook, although I wanted to find out how he resisted that campus' lefty spiel, given that most in his fraternity of scrappy and smart musicians and fans embrace its rhetoric. Anyhow, how he and two college friends started the band, its rapid (it seems to happen in very few pages) entry into college-rock late-1980s acclaim, and the almost as quick booting out of the band by his mates as he showed too much Jersey attitude, passes genially. He acknowledges his flaws, his youth, and he and his colleagues get fair treatment.

He segues into his string of subsequent line-ups, listing them all and all the members, attesting to their brief or nearly non-existent presence. His mood darkens. Of the first and most prominent, Vineland, he ruefully notes how they appeared on an Australian and a Spanish compilation. That's it. Such a low level of notice means that he must work and try to do tours on weekends, or on time off.

He shows how this feels, when one comes back from the van and sleeping on floors to have to get to the job right away. Later this separates him from his corporate media peers when he lands a good job in NYC, and he seethes (as often here, righteously, entertainingly, and appropriately given his nature) about the mockery and dismissal he gets when he confesses to the band name. But the friendships he recounts, the funny stories he and a selection of similar veterans from the scene share help the story move on, albeit with considerable detours and snafus common to he and his ilk. An unexpected feature which makes this less a memoir as it unfolds and more a tribute to a pre-Net social network that united lonely and introspective musical minority and those who put to stage and vinyl its legacy.

I was part of the scene of supporters of this movement, by my peers. So, this tale felt very familiar. Still, Fine and his quoted confreres do not give enough of a sense of what this music actually resembled, what it came across as beyond titles of tunes or paeans to guitars and drums, for an audience not as immersed or obsessed with what used to pass as indie-rock in a word-of-mouth era.

As it trundles on over the decades, the book does wander, and feels as if it should have concluded well before it does not--Fine makes room for garrulous if to me overly detailed (for those like me who may not have ever listened to his music) descriptions of the reunion of BM and like-minded ensembles who now return to middle-aged crowds looking just like him and his friends in the spotlight. Still, this conveys better the sensibility of those who tried to fight the major-label system then and now with loud, punchy, and intelligent tunes which offered, once, truly "alternative" sound.
(Amazon US 12/6/17)

Monday, July 6, 2020

Tressie McMillan Cottom "Lower Ed": Book Review


Having worked at two for-profits, then attaining her sociology doctorate writing on this cohort, Tressie McMillan Cottom carries the "credentials" needed for her examination of a sector comprising over 10% of recent college students. Expanding her dissertation, it is the first in-depth study beyond academia that I am aware of, that covers more than default rates on loans, corporate models, stockholders, or legal ramifications. (She addresses these). Dr. Cottom interviews over a hundred people within this market-funded industry. "These shareholder for-profit colleges are the institutions whose tuition rates appear to be pegged to maximum student loan limits, arguably to extract as much profit from students who can borrow the most because they have the least amount of assets and the fewest college choices." This is a factor that might be attributed to non-profit private colleges too, or nearly so, given perpetual tuition increases. Still, one aspect that Cottom elides is the actual cost of educating a student at a for-profit vs. a traditional institution. For-profits claim that state institutions receive taxes, private ones enjoy endowments, and both elicit alumni donations, unlike their own sector. 18% of their budgets go to "instruction" and 23% for recruitment. "The risk for changing jobs and moving up the professional ladder has shifted to individual workers across race, class, and gender. That risk makes credentials valuable only insofar as those credentials are easy to start, easy to fit into complex lives, and easy to pay for. For-profit colleges nail that trifecta for millions of people who are similarly vulnerable in this new economy of risk shift." She seems spot-on here, but professors merited more. "Visiting faculty" frequently work at for-profits and traditional institutions, at multiple locations. What's the impact? Cottom labels this product as "risky credentials." She overlooks results: how do employers, or graduate schools beyond the for-profit's own, regard such degrees? Are they respected? "Fundamentally, institutions that can turn inequality into profit even when we, citizens and persons, would agree that it is immoral for them to do so provide a far more interesting and powerful account than the impact of any single actor. This, I conclude, is the case with the troubling rise of Lower Ed." These ethics invite debate. Assuming nobody is rejected who can come up with a way to pay, and as tuition is linked to the maximum (usually as not grants but lucrative loans, boosting any provider's prospectus) amount the government (i.e. taxpayer) funds, is this immoral? Trade school lobbyists counter they serve marginalized millions.         The pressure to finance a certificate or degree means that already strapped and overwhelmed students comprise and invest in themselves within a compliant demographic. One they want to rise above. Students may add to their woes by taking on fees that may add up to as much as an elite school but which put them at a "cumulative disadvantage." Debt hobbles millions. “We are not an admissions office. We are a sales force.” As this testimony from an enrollment division's supervisor attests, potential and present students are customers. Their intellectual potential is almost never mentioned. As to increasingly all-online education; it can't be that more expensive to instruct a large class by remote media. If so, why not explore profit gain? What advantages vs. disadvantages result? Are all degrees equivalent in merit? Do any for-profits improve this model? Are quality control and rigor enforced?    "Cost savings were reserved for investors, never for students, as shareholder for-profit colleges kept tuition rates sufficiently high to extract maximum federal student aid dollars." Here’s the crux. Government financial aid wasn’t set up to benefit stockholders rather than needy folks.       "In the case of the new economy, the labor market ethos is clear: more, better, faster workers produced cheaply at little to no expense for companies and speculators. As the public, we once chose to let shareholder for-profit colleges promise to do just that. The evidence is in on that promise. For-profit colleges do not have employment or wage returns that justify their cost to either students or our public system of financial aid." Few voters realize how this sector took advantage, being a business and not a charity, true, of this production line. Ongoing enrollment and rapid matriculation generate metrics. If this clientele is not catered to by traditional schools, Cottom argues, for-profits will proliferate. Lower Ed appeared while the previous administration sought tougher oversight; said sector fought back in lobbying, and in soliciting students to overwhelm legislators with testimonials. Promotion of job placement rates and levels of income for graduates were examined. A year after her book was written, enforcement ebbed. But this past decade, growth dipped in this sector as traditional institutions diversify. One reliable market pursued is the military, for the financial aid students here receive is not counted under the limit (90%?) that the government caps as a total amount. A loophole used to advantage by many for-profits.      "He could count on easy access to financial aid refunds and an online class structure with an underground economy of coursework that could be bought or borrowed." This aside from a student who "works the system" deserved emphasis. Standardized curricula and textbook-generated exams create "learning opportunities" which savvy students exploit. This aspect is not likely scrutinized by overseers; it's easier to keep lessons basic, for hiring. Faculty can be placed quickly and courses roll out efficiently—mass production at work.      "One of the for-profit colleges’ great disruptions is to the role of faculty, who are rarely expected to be active researchers. Research in for-profit colleges is more likely to fall under ‘marketing’ as opposed to 'academics.”' Few institutions provide physical libraries or labs. Faculty may lack access to paywalled databases. Duties and teaching loads tend to exceed courseloads at traditional universities for "hired at-will" faculty. This sector favors professors who are also active in their fields and therefore non-tenured. Is this hiring a negative or a positive preference?         "How can a college that is honor-bound to extract excess tuition remediate the interlocking, systemic, entrenched, and inheritable conditions of poverty, near-poverty, and inequality?" Excellent question. For-profits may re-brand as education providers or corporate contractors. But moral debate continues. Defenders assert that those left out of traditional education need a leg up. Critics wonder why this assistance comes at a hefty price tag, and who foots this bill.      "Time has become the commodity being traded for institutional prestige." After all, this ambitious audience responds to data-driven recruiters. A schoolteacher takes on debt that can reach hundreds of thousands for an online advanced degree. This risk of expense is trumped by the accelerated, incessant open enrollment, and the chance that such degrees will meet with the acceptance rates equivalent to selective schools. That student's gamble is why for-profits extend their offer to invite customers to the degree-gaming table. (Amazon US 9/20/17 in slightly different form--sorry about the paragraphing or lack of above in transition to this blog)

Friday, July 3, 2020

John M. Bowers' "Tolkien's Lost Chaucer" Book Review

 Cover for 

Tolkiens Lost Chaucer

While at least some who discover J.R.R. Tolkien’s works as young people go on to study medieval literature, very few have first approached Tolkien after having established their careers as experts in the British Middle Ages. Professor John M. Bowers, a seasoned scholar on the Gawain poet, William Langland and Geoffrey Chaucer, brings to his investigation of Tolkien’s “lost Chaucer” a variety of engaging strategies enabling those familiar with either writer to enjoy the other one.

Bowers confesses that he barely knew of hobbit fantasies when Bowers glimpsed Tolkien during his Rhodes Scholar stint at Oxford, shortly before the master’s death in 1973. Familiar, however, with Tolkien’s academic contributions, Bowers only caught on to the popular appeal of the author of The Lord of the Rings after his sister gave him the film trilogy as a boxed set at the start of this century. The previous century found Tolkien arguably more appreciated by millions, contrasted with those who had been assigned the opening of The Canterbury Tales in high school. Bowers made up mid-career for his delayed start. Having explored Middle Earth attentively and with deep appreciation, he provides a welcome, fresh foray into both medieval and modern lore.

With so much academic work devoted to Chaucer, and an increasing amount to Tolkien (both deep within and on the fringes of the academy), innovations elude many publishing on these writers. Bowers’ acumen with Middle English and Chaucer’s oeuvre enlivens his parallel adventure into the papers left behind by Tolkien from his work on the Oxford University Press Clarendon Chaucer edition. As a harried lecturer with a growing family to support, Tolkien struggled to balance his invention of Middle Earth and its burgeoning intricacies with his professional duties. He longed to expand his beloved imaginary horizons beyond the podium.

Finding that Tolkien may have often begged off duties to devote precious time to his fabulous fiction, Bowers turns to his former dissertation advisor, V.A. Kolve. He was one of the last in the undergraduate program to work for Tolkien as a research assistant, back in 1958. Kolve recalls his mentor’s confiding: “He confessed to me once that some were disappointed by how little he had done in the academic way, but that he had chosen instead to explore his own vision of things.” The ties binding students to masters at Oxford meant only a chosen few could attend Tolkien’s tutorials and lectures, but these scholars spread the reputation of Tolkien through their own specialized monographs and articles, quoting Tolkien often on Beowulf or Old English.

This represents the attention paid to Tolkien the scholar, compared with the fabulist-on-the-side. Upending the common method, by which Tolkien enthusiasts tend to look to his medieval inspirations to track sources and analogies, Bowers comes from immersion in Chaucer back to his erstwhile scribe. In his annotated proofs and diligent notes for the Clarendon project, Bowers uncovers affinities galore. Out of this at first unprepossessing material in the Oxford archives, the “grey box” of sheets scribbled in Tolkien’s fastidious if eccentric handwriting remind Bowers of Gandalf poring over “the slashed, stabbed, and partly burned Book of Mazurbal.”

Bowers avers that Tolkien’s selling point, which under his sponsor George Gordon elevated Tolkien from his position at Leeds to a professorship at Oxford, was the fact that, if hired, the academic could labor on their stalled edition of Chaucer. However, 30 years’ of intermittent labor never was published. Tolkien abandoned it in 1951. Three years later, his trilogy appeared.

All the same, his skilled efforts at textual studies and etymological derivations inspired key episodes in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Bowers pulls out such small details as Tolkien’s service as a signaling officer in the Great War or his fear of being outed as a Catholic, too. Bowers shows how Tolkien’s life and legends interweave, and how his status at Oxford fared compared to his counterpart C.S. Lewis. This takes a bit of shine off the glory bestowed by admirers of the latter chronicler, but it necessarily proves that Tolkien faced severe obstacles, looming or subtle, that complicated his Chaucer contributions and diminished his learned output. These biographical surmises, backed by letters and lectures unpublished from the same archives, enrich what previous admirers have devoted to Tolkien’s impact. Bowers possesses balance; he avoids hagiography. Instead, he compares Tolkien’s career at times to that of Chaucer himself.

This clever set of affinities creates the most engaging part of Tolkien’s Lost Chaucer. How the Oxford don reacted to yew trees, mills and millers or “felled elms” in his childhood echoes in his Middle Earth world. Bowers, in one of many instances, demonstrates how his close reading of Tolkien’s archived manuscripts and notes strengthened Tolkien’s compulsion to pore most of his energy into a realm emerging that rivalled and perhaps surpassed the ambitious, unfinished plans of Chaucer for his great book of many pilgrims relating many stories. A coda takes Tolkien’s own unfinished project forward, through the editing of his son Christopher. While neither Chaucer nor Tolkien could complete their greatest works, they leave plenty behind for steady pioneers such as John Bowers to unearth, revealing that riches still await men who dig deep for gold.
Spectrum Culture 3/5/20

P.S. Delighted to verify in print, in this title I review, that my diss. advisor name-checked in this review (who far earlier advised similarly the author of this study) was one of JRRT's last "probationary B.Litt students" at Oxford in 1958. He'd arrive for tutoring at 11 AM and the professor poured gin out for them both from rather soiled glasses. So I'm two steps removed from the inspiration for my own medieval studies, as a boy 6000 miles away in dusty, smoggy SoCal, who read The Hobbit when I was nine.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

David Mitchell's "Utopia Avenue": Book Review

 Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell
Eight novels into his career, David Mitchell's established himself. You can count on his fiction to take you into a multicultural space, a cultural clash, and (nearly always) a spiritual--or at least supernatural--encounter. Engagingly told by either first or third-person narrators, his plots unfurl to keep any reader turning the pages. Which can add up, given the heft of most of his tales speculating on the grey areas between this realm and other ones.

If you've come to Utopia Avenue fresh, I'd suggest a detour. You need to start with The Bone Clocks (2014), and maybe the spin-off novella from the following year, Slade House. (Both reviewed on PopMatters). These will prepare you to step back into Mitchell's oeuvre. His first book introduced his modus operandi. Ghostwritten (1999) lives up to its title. It shuffles through various lives in different places across many centuries. The characters merge subtly with one another. Tellingly, the substance of the novel adds up to nine lives. The manner of how their essences may be transmitted in turn floats into a vast Cloud Atlas. 

Probably Mitchell's best known effort to date, Cloud Atlas creates an ambitious narrative which follows similar themes as his debut. But in this 2004 effort, Mitchell amps up the energy and the invention over a wider range of prose styles and six-times-two extended set-pieces which draw one into: the mind of a nineteenth-century notary at sea, a poor musician's journal early in the next century, a whistle-blower's thriller, a dystopian robotic Asia, and a wittily sour publisher on the lam. These nestle into one another like Russian dolls, burrowing into the central tale in post-apocalyptic Hawai'i before emerging to repeat the cycle of the previous five sections in reverse, by resolving each interrupted story.

However, even then a reader will not be ready to appreciate fully the backdrop of Utopia Avenue unless he or she finishes first the sprawling (even by Mitchell's standards) 2010 historical saga set at the turn of the eighteenth-century in Nagasaki, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. These prerequisites will prove enjoyable, and none will feel like assigned homework to catch up on. Nevertheless, this short stack of tall tales will take a while, so those opening Utopia Avenue need to know they'll be expected to have kept pace with prolific Mitchell over two decades. This leaves out, all the same, his remaining two novels.

The frenetic number9dream (2001) conjures up a chaotic sense of modern Tokyo; Mitchell lived in Japan for many years. Its own nine chapters thread together an imitation of Haruki Murakami rather than Mitchell's genuine voice, although the practice he gets in eclectic structures and experimental settings prepares him for Cloud Atlas. Finally, there's one charming outlier, his semi-autobiographical reminiscences of a thirteen-year-old on a housing estate in the middle of Worcestershire. It's told straightforwardly, and movingly.

Black Swan Green (2006) evokes powerfully Thatcher's England of the Falklands War, the New Romantics, synth-pop, stuttering, and all things British and/or annoying circa 1982. The audiobook performance by Kirby Heyborne will reward; many of Mitchell's works transfer well to the spoken word, although I'd make sure one has already a firm grip on the printed version of Cloud Atlas, given its dialects, intricate references, and inventive terms.

Back to the future for Mitchell fits. His storylines unravel chronology. In fact, the eerie Horologists who try to bottle up human life-forces so as to distill the Oil of Souls thrive on defying linearity as they strive to apply their energies to a vampire-fueled immortality. If this sentence makes sense, then one can follow Utopia Avenue. But one of its main characters, Jasper de Zoet, discovers his lineage traces back to 1800 Nagasaki, and that unfinished business then accounts for the mess that destroys the settled life of another protagonist at the start of The Bone Clocks, which ticks off from 1984 through its cast of misfits into 2043.

So, slot in Utopia Avenue between The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks. In the spirit of Ghostwritten, characters face strange enemies. Connections appear subtly between these and more. For in Utopia Avenue as in all his works, Mitchell scatters "Easter Egg" appearances or allusions to his previous--and one presumes--future fiction. Characters and their works survive and echo as their stories already told reverberate softly.

It's difficult to convey the pleasures within Utopia Avenue to the uninitiated who enter David Mitchell's universe. Suffice to say that unless spoilers get revealed, only the gist of the work can be related. A few PopMatters faithful will know of the English folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention. Well, take Sandy Denny (who appears as do many musicians of the psychedelic era in cameos or small supporting roles), one of its talented vocalists. She's channeled into Elf Holloway, a keyboardist from the folk scene, and one of three singer-songwriters. Second, Dean Moss hails from Gravesend, on the Thames estuary where the owners of the local pub will reappear as The Bone Clocks begin ticking. This bassist hails from the working-class in London itself. The class-consciousness plays a role in establishing the tensions and the diversity that enriches the new ensemble. They're joined by jazz-trained drummer Griff from darkest Yorkshire, and Jacob himself, a sort of Richard Thompson scarecrow figure on amazing guitar. Similarities ensue with real bands such as Fairport.

Car crashes, tragic passings (Mitchell excels at death scenes, premature or final), bleary touring and international hassles, sexist pop-show hosts, and smarmy manipulators all scheme against the three men and one woman (this group battles leering come-ons and baffled reaction in times not as advanced yet as some from sixty-odd years on may assume).

Mitchell's done his homework. The mmersion into not only London but a trucker's stop where ruffled and velvet-clad foppish musicians recharge after being on the concert trail, the wonder and danger of San Francisco's allure as seen through the eyes of members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane, the dense terror and drive of Manhattan appear vividly as Utopia Avenue, the scrappy titular band, struggle up the charts and on blurred tours.

Laurel Canyon, Amsterdam, the Chelsea Hotel, and the less-heralded backwaters of Britain receive affectionate, insightful, and well-detailed depictions. Mitchell gets his rhythms right. Even a prison cell in Rome benefits from this writer's careful eye for all of the senses. Being born the start of 1969, he nonetheless benefits from his short distance from one who "really remembered the Sixties." He's old enough to have grown up with its musical legacy and cultural heritage. He's young enough to have been educated about the Aquarian Age's follies, its political naivete, and its bouts of impotence against endemic hate that trumps peace.

Woven into this revival of an age of expectation, Mitchell stitches a subtle critique of the impacts of the pot-heavy, lysergic-immersed, and heady music's ambitions on pop culture, moral choices, and even tripping itself. One watches the creation of verses; the novel is cleverly arranged to illustrate how each song on each album began its life--and Mitchell comes up with convincing lyrics too. The force of music as it emerges mysteriously or insistently in the mind of a capable (or baffled or stoned) composer gains clout as Mitchell expresses how notes stick on frets. The author examines deftly the ideals which force and beckon the four musicians and their circle to confront choices for good and evil. Amidst the slogans and chants, the violence (emotional and physical) exacted and inflicted around the band's predicament to stay true to their ethos makes them all mature into better people.

And that's the encouraging lesson of Utopia Avenue. The way to a better world, Mitchell quietly emphasizes, demands that responsibility not be shirked, and that cant or rhetoric fails to solve human loneliness or hereditary alienation. His composed, existential view may not please all, but his own Buddhist-inspired contemplation amidst the carnage and ecstasy of this romanticized era reminds us today of the caution needed when messages get blared.

"Music + Mind-Bending" at PopMatters 6/9/20 with hyperlinks to the cultural mentions. And a very trippy artwork that graces the review. Better than the galley (?) cover shown....

Sunday, June 28, 2020

William F. Buckley's "Nearer My God": Book Review

Nearer, My God
I chose this on a whim as it was so far out of my usual orbit. No recollections of the old sod or stickball, and barely any for altar boys and fearsome clergy. Instead, a patrician account and series of reflections and reactions to the course of Catholicism from the venerable era in which Buckley was elegantly raised and the postconciliar malaise which has affected so many in the less certain Church.

His noblesse oblige permeates. There's a couple mentions of devout black butlers, but that's about it for class consciousness. It's rather astounding to follow this chronicle, so removed from the reality most of us share when it comes to education, privilege, or sailing at every opportunity at a summer home. This elevated lifestyle unfolds, and Buckley surely as he's accustomed to the manor/ manner born comports himself as he's been raised. It makes for a very curious spiritual autobiography/ FAQ.

For Buckley turns this midway into a novel experiment. He interviews a few of his friends, mostly converts, and all conservative fellow-travelers, often at the National Review, naturally. They also feature priests who've transferred to Catholic clergy from Protestant denominations. Buckley surveys their takes on many questions he raises about dogma, belief, and practice. Although as a cradle Catholic I must confess none of the statements he compiles would have convinced me to join "Rome," it's instructive to learn the mindset of those coming to "the faith" without being raised in it.
I could follow the theological details, but for many who admire Buckley, this granular examination may bore or bewilder. There's far less of his famed politics, and not much of his wit or rhetoric either.

It does all make for an oddly paced book. It's more a series of explorations and reflections, although the central theme of examining what persists post-Vatican II as the liberals often left the clergy and left the administration to overworked and understaffed priests and laypeople is important. For it demonstrates the rebound, if by default given the numerical advantage of the diminished remnant in control, of the traditionally minded episcopate and papacy, of what's a dwindling number of cradle-born congregants in America and Europe. This does all tilt in Buckley's view, as expected, to slant away from a global awareness of how the Church will fare as its center slides towards the "South."

As a result, this work will appeal to the small coterie of like-minded sympathizers with both Buckley's worldview and likely his class and background. The name-dropping may come without hesitation to this author, but it does remind the hoi polloi of our place among the pews and practically as peons. Few of the rest of us may be able to enter this intimately connected and convinced realm even via print, but it's a document to this reaction to what was meant as a reform to appeal to millions presumably reluctant to accept a pre-modern Church, even though the results in sweeping that aside enchanted far fewer than anticipated, at least among Buckley's entitled cabal. (Amazon US 12/12/17)

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

John Garth's "The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien": Book Review

 Image of The Worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien: The Places That Inspired Middle-earth
Atlases of Middle-Earth, guides and art, tributes and monographs, films and “cosplay” proliferate. What John Garth adds to the ever-proliferating pile of Tolkien-related media is a careful eye and steady step. He explores the intersections between this world and that of Tolkien’s “legendarium.” He traces inspirations from what the author saw, and how they may likely have evolved into what can be gleaned from his tales, letters, drafts, and sketches.

While not all made it into the published product, the effort Garth demonstrates attests to Tolkien’s visionary projection, his uncanny talent at what this scholar compares to a paint-box, in which the author dipped, daubed, and mixed layers of color, depth, hue, form, and drama into his vast legacy of narratives.

To begin, Garth logically starts with the hobbits’ Shire. Tracking parallels to childhood scenes in the village of Sarehole near Birmingham, Garth shows how Tolkien grew up amidst an almost-vanished rural setting. He then broadens the scope, viewing the “people, languages and cosmology” of Tolkien’s panorama, already emerging in his youthful imagination. It soon encompasses England itself, transformed into Lúthien, a name with lasting resonance, for it graces Tolkien’s tombstone. Topography expands abroad, with chapters devoted to features such as shores and seas, inland waters, mountains, forests, battlefields, and industrial wastelands. All are “places built or shaped by people,” Garth notes, and by Tolkien’s incessant cultivation of fussy details as a “natural niggler” whose seeding as a medievalist and linguist bore abundant fruit.

Garth reminds readers that what Tolkien began over a century ago described races and places as seen by medieval poets and chroniclers, not necessarily as they actually were. This astute caution defends the author’s works against detractors who, looking back and projecting contemporary critical theory upon Middle-Earth, distort its perspective.

What opens up to the viewer dazzles. Drowned lands, moving islands, and sea-caves first appear as Garth follows Tolkien’s explorations of the real and the fictional, and their blur and blend. Mountains loom, for Tolkien’s 1911 walking tour of the Swiss valley of Lauterbrunnen offered a “superfluity of inspiration,” in Garth’s estimation.

Peaks of fire, ice, and mist echo, as do Tolkien’s analysis incorporating volcanoes, geology, subterranean architecture, and craggy formations. Again, the 1911 travels had taken him two days down the Rhine towards the Alps. Germanic lore of dragon lairs and Wagner’s Ring-cycle leave imprints in his works. Rivers, pools, marshes and floods connect one section of this book to the next on “tree-woven lands.” Clumps, clusters, and circles of woods Garth compares to Tolkien’s wonderfully drawn maps, varied vistas, and even medieval cathedrals which have enriched his subject’s imagination.

Philology, archeology, cartography entered too, for the castles surviving, burial mounds, barrows, chalk-figures, and the ruins excavated across England turned into the citadels, fortresses, halls, and towers which endure or topple as ancient attestations to bloodshed. They populated Tolkien’s landscapes. As Garth’s previous book documented Tolkien’s experiences in, and reactions to, the “Great War,” this scholar’s scrutiny of artifacts of stone and iron, conflagration into ash, diaries, letters, and jottings comprise a significant portion of this superbly illustrated new volume.

While other writers schooled in the Edwardian age focused on the phantasmagorical, Tolkien’s balance with the grim realities of combat tempered his treatment. Panoramic desolation sears his pages, as does telling detail, that for instance of dead faces after a slaughter, submerged in miasmas as glimpsed from above by weary, parched marchers.
Tolkien’s sensitivity toward the eradication of the environment that nurtured his soul permeates his creations. This mirrored the hidden damage within those who survived the global carnage. As Tolkien recovered in 1916 from “louse-borne trench fever,” in and out of hospitals, he strengthened the scaffolding of his narrative constructions.

Returning to England, Garth corrects Tolkien’s pioneering biographer Humphrey Carpenter’s assertion that Birmingham equated to the dark and despotic Mordor. Garth examines that city’s toy industry, and its buildings preserving the Gothic Revival and William Morris’ Arts and Crafts Movement of Victorian times. Yet Garth somberly acknowledges the “swallowing of Sarehole,” as Tolkien’s beloved hamlet succumbs to a suburban “sea of new red-brick,” in his phrase.

John Garth concludes by evoking Tolkien’s ideals of “community, peace, freedom, craft and intimacy with nature.” These virtues enriched both his fictional and factual domains where he passed his long life, and its results endure to “reflect what he most loved and detested in his own world.”

Whether new to Middle-Earth or a veteran pilgrim, anyone will learn much in this book.
(New York Journal of Books, June 18, 2020.)

Saturday, June 13, 2020