Friday, September 19, 2014

Judith Flanders' "The Victorian City": Book Review

London epitomizes the Victorian city. It doubled in population between 1800 and 1850, and this growth spurt was witnessed by its most famous author, who moved there at the age of ten, in 1821. Gleaning the most informative or entertaining evidence from the author's many books, Judith Flanders combines Dickens' life and works with archives as a "perfect optic through which to see the city's transformation" during the reign of Queen Victoria and Dickens' life span. While these do not align perfectly, as the queen reigned between 1837 and 1901 while Dickens died in 1870, the general fit proves neat enough here.

This is thick, and therefore a congenial match for Dickens' own sometimes voluble texts. Well illustrated with period lithographs and engravings, prefaced by helpful maps reminding us how much that capital does and does not match the layout of the ever-congested megapolis today, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London keeps to the streets themselves rather than the interiors and domestic duty. These streets prove noisy, as horses clopped and cabs rattled. Sellers shouted, carts crashed, horses neighed and cattle bellowed, from what seems before dawn until midnight, daily.

Flanders opens with a look at how early many had to wake up. By two or three in the morning, some had left home miles away, even in the countryside, to hike in to the markets and to set up stalls in near-blackness. Many returned home in the same lack of light, through dim, dangerous, and unpaved streets, after twelve- or fourteen hour days. Saturdays some might leave work at ten p.m. They were condemned by Sabbatarians who chided those who dared to shop in turn on Sundays for their scanty provisions. Lives lived in the open meant that few of the poorer classes kept food at home, where storage was lacking and vermin abounded. Instead, people ate on the go, many trudging everywhere.

The ratio of black cabs today to people in London is over 1:400. 160 years ago, there was about one horse-drawn cab for every person. The traffic had to, at Temple Bar which divided the City from the West End, narrow to a space twenty yards wide, and coaches and livery jammed into what was likely a perpetual bottleneck. Such situations multiplied over the city, as the poor had to live near their jobs and the rich sought to travel if possible by more amenable transport than on foot. But these rides could be harrowing, and the mud, rain, smoke, fog, and excrement that abounded meant whatever one's rank, the weather and the smells took their toll on one's health, one's clothing, and one's nerves.

Some sights jolt us by familiarity. Traffic clogged, even as a lunchroom promised free delivery within a ten-mile radius. Grand illuminations lit up London with huge displays, even if this same city could be so dark before streetlights that firemen tried to put out a blaze they kept glimpsing beyond, which turned out to be the Northern Lights. Other features remind us of distinctions. Waiters had to pay for their laundry, supplies, and a place at the chophouses where they then had to count on tips for their wage. Oysters were craved as then as now, but back then, were a cheap source of food for the poor.

What differs is the diminution of animals from these dense streets today. The horrors of Smithfield Market with its braying of terrified livestock sent to slaughter, the din of those goading them with whips, the escape of maddened bulls, the press of cattle and sheep in the small pens, the stench: this created a scene that as the animals were herded through the streets few could fully escape, or forget.

However narrow, streets certainly have widened in the never-ending construction which marks London for two centuries and more now. This also led to slum clearances, as either well-intended or speculative interests sought to raze medieval warrens and tiny alleys where filth emanated, among humans and beasts and factories. Yet, this pushed the poor, who still had to walk to their work--often on the streets themselves--into nearby neighborhoods, accelerating their decline even as the inner city (then as now) soared in desirability. Even the Tube followed this pattern; Flanders reminds us that unlike Paris, London's planners kept many underground lines out of the innermost ring of London (or at least diverted from regal proximity). The Underground in turn sparked more sprawl, more crowds.

It can surprise us how frequently Queen Victoria survived no less than seven assassination attempts, given the proximity of herself to these very crowds. She, perhaps appropriately, rarely appears in these pages, although other royals do, often at clubs separated from the pubs where lowlier folks flock. While Flanders' survey suffers from a shortcoming of not entering as many interiors, beyond the public gaze, as a reader eager to discover Victorian minutiae might anticipate, she examines in a frisky chapter the veracity of claims for prostitution by a considerable number of women on London's streets. She avers that although such a profession was attributed to milliners, that occupation's required hours of fourteen or sixteen hour shifts meant that even if  those women still had the energy after work to pursue liaisons for profit or pleasure (the two could blur), they likely had not the time.

The challenge no matter the labor most Londoners had to eke out was how to stay healthy, dry, shod, and fed. Until nearly 1850, Westminster and surrounding areas were supplied with drinking water from sewers. Dregs from the glasses rinsed in a pub were sold again to the poor. Scraps similarly were fed to the same. Cholera spread, and infection grew. The conditions under which Londoners breathed, dined,a and drank prove the dismal nature of the fog-bound and soot-showered streets. On these, everyone appears to have plied a trade, licit or otherwise. Watercress-girls, cats' meat vendors with horse chunks on skewers cut to order, dog-carts (alas no canine-power), touts for dolly shops (unlicensed pawnbrokers), crossing-sweepers, costermongers with strawberries sold in paper cones, match-sellers, hot-potato vendors, chum-masters in charge of who was jailed with whom for debt or for crime, and pimps consorted in the mews or shoved each other at Covent Garden or on the Strand.

The circle of who sold what comprised its tidy if ironically drawn economy. Tea leaves after stewing were rinsed, dried, and sprinkled on carpets to draw up dust before sweeping. "Once this had been done, some charwomen sold the leaves to unscrupulous dealers who mixed them with new tea leaves, selling the tea at bargain prices. It was these very women and their kind who were most likely to purchase the lowest-priced tea, and who were drinking what they had lately swept up." (148)

Flanders sprinkles such observations throughout. She sets up one theme per chapter and moves within from topic to topic carefully. Occupations or their lack, health or its lack, entertainment for all, and nighttime temptations and dangers create the four foundations upon which her solid scholarship rests, in brisk, clear prose. She opens each chapter with a dramatic vignette from an elaborate hoax, a fire on the Thames, a skating disaster at Regents Park, and the funeral of the Duke of Wellington to conjure a fitting mood.

I did close this still pondering a few questions I had expected to be answered by the conclusion, as so much detail fills this book. What about the cultural impact of the Great Exhibition, and of the museums and galleries which already had begun to be built?  What did the fabled Leadenhall Market look like? In an era torn between reason and faith, surely these debates of the Victorian era must have generated friction on the street among preachers and debaters, and left their mark on passersby.

While some of the amassed data may overwhelm a casual reader, Judith Flanders admirably avoids jargon and keeps this always pitched at a general reader. A hundred of the just over five hundred pages are notes, a bibliography, and an index, assuring its value as a reference as well as a narrative. (PopMatters 7-22-14

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Travis Elborough + Nick Rennison's "A London Year": Book Review

This clever book celebrates diarists, letter-writers, and journal-keepers who, day by day as chronicled here, add over two hundred of their famous and humble voices to the eight million who currently crowd this city. (Not counting the tourists.) Fittingly, where Samuel Pepys pioneered the diary as a record of an individual's reactions to the collective crush. the variety of stimulation, irritation, and celebration comprises a novel way to roam London. Editors Travis Elborough and Nick Rennison also work as booksellers, and the handsome presentation (graced by a pale blue ribbon sewn into the hardcover binding as a marker) enhances this big volume.

The opening endpaper maps London from 1574 as drawn by a Flemish cartographer. The closing endpaper charts Twitter and Flickr feeds from the sprawl that extends ten-fold, centuries later from the core glowing with electronic transmission. What in Shakespeare's times comprised the City of London and a less congested stretch down along the Thames to Westminster's royal enclave spreads today into distant suburbs. But the ancient turns of the serpentine city's northern course, considerably larger but still identifiable as a concentration along the north shore of the river, twists on, near giant blocks discernible as parks that have been plotted out.

This combination of streets and space, planned after the Great Fire which Pepys described so well, allowed his successors to note their ability, frustrated or eased, to escape the loos for the lawns. One will benefit from a map of one's own to plot one's route for instruction or orientation, or an A-Z guidebook. The intricacy of networks and referents becomes to those acquainted with the labyrinth at the city's heart somewhat more familiar, but as any visitor or native agrees, its name-maze endures.

The editors note how certain tropes repeat down the decades: "The impossibility of getting around the place. The dirtiness of London's streets. The unpredictability of the weather. The expensiveness of food and lodgings. The snootiness of shopkeepers, restauranteurs and/or publicans." Consistently, complaints repeat, notably the "difficulty of finding somewhere decent to live and, interrelatedly, the worry about whether the price of X and Y neighborhood will go up or go down." Finally, as Charles Lamb summed up in 1829, the old place isn't what it once was.

In a short review, five-hundred pages of extracted narratives defy summation. Yet, patterns emerge. They share often the nostalgia of Lamb (not included), but they reveal many emotions. I opened the book at random, as many readers may (once they check their birthday or today's date to see how the mood or the clime correspond or not to their own wherever they peruse this, in whichever borough or suburb wherever), at 28 May. "A Man Vomiting Blood" in St. James's Street, observed by William Windham and his colleague, detains them from their entrance into the House. Parliamentary affairs, it transpires, can wait, as the two statesmen repaired to a club instead in 1760, according to his diary.

Mary Berry's journal commemorates that same date the visit of the King and Queen of the Sandwich Islands to the capital. "Her savage majesty appeared much more occupied by the red-plumed hats of the musicians than the music." Berry notes how the Hawaiian ladies, encumbered by the folds of their voluminous "European dress", walked awkwardly; "there was nothing of the free step of the savage".

"All are caged birds; the only difference is the size of the cage." So muses Thomas Hardy, in characteristically epigrammatic style, after waiting that day in 1885 at the Marble Arch to watch the people pass in their finery. "Hurry, speech, laughter, moans, cries of little children" enliven for Hardy the human "tragedy" along this "hum of the wheel -- the roar of London!"

Most dates offer an equivalent sampling of entries, from as diverse a cast. Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West, but also Nils Stevenson from the punk era in 1977 and Aaron Burr from 1808. Lord Byron and Lindsay Anderson; Michael Palin and Keshub Chandra Sen, a Bengali philosopher in 1870; emancipated slave Ignatius Sancho from the Georgian period and Emily Shore, who after her visits in 1830 as a girl would die of consumption a few years later. These are the people through which we see London, those often who have come to stay for a short time or a lifetime after being born elsewhere. Along with natives (ranking far fewer, as in many cosmopolitan cities, it seems) such as Charlton F.C. fan Russ Wilkins, nearly unknown Victorian clerk Rafe Neville Leychester, or late nineteenth-century minister's daughter Helen G. McKenny, we see from the recognizable names and the obscure bylines the range of perspectives and persuasions drawn by tellers who put down on paper their reactions to the London they occupy, for a surprise or a memory, as a souvenir of their passing moment day by day and year by year. (2-24-14 to Amazon US and 2-20-14 to PopMatters)

Monday, September 15, 2014

William Alexander's "Flirting with French": Book Review

Learning French, even for a middle-aged Francophile, proves elusive. Its infamous pronunciation, its maddeningly gendered nouns, its elisions, its lack of syllabic emphases: William Alexander laments them all. Going on 58, after writing successful books on mad ambitions to achieve the perfect garden and bake the perfect loaf, he seems as well-suited as any driven autodidact for task three.

Most adults will never fully master a second language. Alexander's ambitions meet the obstacle most of our brains encounter when we try to learn a new language post-puberty. As he explains, once the neural networks have sparked childhood fluency, our valuable hard-wiring gets diverted so the brain can apply it to non-linguistic necessities as we mature. Our innate capacity which enables us to quickly attain our native language in infancy then fades; consider how even teens struggle with foreign conjugations and prepositions.

Alexander sums up linguistic theory and neurological research, but he finds that these cannot account for the other 8/9 of our body. Acting out French sentences, he shows, overcomes his brain's hesitations. Reading a play by Sartre or reciting into a microphone via Rosetta Stone stymie him. French evokes from Alexander emotions, impulses, and gestures, beyond vocabulary lists and conversational lessons. He wanders along this book's way to relate his correspondence with a pen-pal, his stints at total-immersion French environments, the history of French, the sly promises of machines such as Google Translate, and the daunting barriers to fluency.

Alexander plugs away. He claims to work, but from the obsessive attempt he documents, pursuing  French becomes what seems to me a full-time job. Inspired to overcome his mental block, with visual imagery he memorizes a thousand words in a children's bilingual dictionary; he strains this same memory, on the other hand, to recall common verbs while chatting with classmates. The yin-yang of advancing and regressing in language learning will comfort any student who has faced, for example, the clash of decimal and vigesimal (base-twenty) counting systems. He finds fresh examples, too.

"Soixante-neuf  is the last 'easy' number in French. Should you want to turn your lovemaking up a notch to seventy, you'll find there is no "seventy" in French. This is undoubtedly due to French frugality." One adds ten to sixty, and up to "sixty-ten-nine", before one hits eighty, as "four-twenties".

Metaphors beyond the most famous of French numbers also enliven his narrative. Alexander's lively chapter on colorful idioms entertains. To tie the marriage knot is rendered as putting a noose around your neck. Having a wet dream equals "to make a map of France". One suspects male-authored phrases so far, but anyone can find a stroke of good fortune. However, few of either sex, whatever luck comes their sudden way, may long for more than a linguistically evoked "ass full of noodles". Outside of a few (non-?) French in recovery, who would not acclaim the praise given a delectable glass of red wine? "C'est le petit Jésus en culotte de velours!" "It's the Baby Jesus in velvet shorts!"
 
Wine may well be prescribed for Francophiles eager to escape the rigors of battling French itself. Alexander's cardiologist asks about any new stress in his patient's life. "Well, I am studying French." Alexander avers near this book's conclusion that he has been learning a lot of French, but not "learning French". The latter goal may recede; his native-born teacher suggests after five to seven years, living in France, of course, he may get pretty good at it. Over thirteen months and nine-hundred hours, he drives himself on towards fluency. Complicated by his arrhythmic heart and a series of surgeries, the results of his sustained immersion will surprise him, at the end of this genial narrative. During to date only half the time Alexander spent, I've been cursing daily during my online French lessons, fifteen minutes or so each. That's all the patience I can summon. But Flirting with French gave me faint hope; as another middle-aged learner, who began during my first visit to Québec last autumn, I recognize in Alexander's story my own frustrations, magnified or diminished. (Amazon US 9-3-14; PopMatters 9-14-14; Author's website)

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Slán a fhágail dó Taffy

Fuair Taffy bás amach ar feadh an tseachtaine seo caite. Féadfaidh tú ár Corgi Phembróc in earrach seo caite anseo. Bhí maith leis a suí chomh seo liom.

Bhí Taffy ag ár teaghlach ó 2004 ann. Chuir muid sé nuair raibh sé coileán. D'fhéach sé cosúil le coileán sionnach.

Is breá liom feoil. Go fírinne, díth air a ith achan bia. Bhí léas mór ina á shúil nuair chonaic lón.

Ghlór mé Taffy "tafalach" go minic. Lig mé go raibh Taffy ina gadaí. Bhí mhaith liom a rith i ndhiadh dó amháil is dá feargach.

Bíonn Taffy i gcoirt go coitanta. Chuala muid sé ghile faoi a choisaint chugainn in ár teach agus ár clós lá agus óiche. Deanfaidh muid chailleain dó. Tá súil agam go bhfuil sé sásta leis caoireail sna scamaill anois agus i gcónaí.

Saying Farewell to Taffy.

Death took Taffy away during the past week. You can see our Pembroke Corgi last spring here. He liked to sit with me like this.

Taffy was with our family from 2004. We got him when he was a pup. He looked like a fox cub.

He loved meat. Truly, he had a need to eat every food. He had a great shimmer in his eyes when he saw edibles.

I called Taffy "tafalach" often, I pretended as if Taffy was a thief. I liked to run after him as if angry.

Taffy was commonly barking. We heard him dashing about our house and our yard to guard us day and night. We will miss him. I hope he is happy with sheep in the clouds now and always.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

"To End All Wars: the Graphic Anthology of the Great War": Review

Harry Patch, World War One's last surviving British veteran, was asked what he would tell young people. Defining war as "organised murder", he responded: "Don't join the army." Pat Mills in his introduction adds that this comment was scrubbed from the finished version of Patch's interview. This graphic collection opens with the greatest of such cover-ups; Brick's "The Iron Dice" sketches how millions were sent to slaughter, by imperial cabals protecting profits and peddling patriotism. This anthology's website sums up the consequences: "The so-called ‘Great War’ was the first truly multinational war, the first heavily mechanised war, the first oil war, the first fought to the benefit of capitalists on both sides, the first to murder millions of civilians and the last orchestrated by kings, barons and lords as if it were a ripping game of polo." 
  
26 contributions by 53 artists and writers from 13 nations represent the global impact of this subject. Depicted over four continents are the four theaters of war: land, sea, air, and the home front. A century later, few graphic novels have depicted these early horrors (and heroics, deluded, desperate, or gallant as they may be judged in sober retrospect), compared with the media attention devoted to its successor, WWII. This stark, chiaroscuro, thick compilation begins to redress this deficit. It promotes a humanitarian view of the worldwide conflict as witnessed by not only famous and everyday men and women, but also by a diligent elephant, hounds, purported angels, and an Alpine cat. (A share of U.S. and British profits go to Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders.) 

Familiar names such as Winston Churchill, Rasputin, Baron Von Richthofen, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mata Hari appear, but most entries feature unheralded men and women. Mostly inspired by true accounts, those who volunteered talents to script and illustrate these boldly drawn or softly delineated stories share sympathy for the plight of those cajoled, conscripted, or, as in Colm Regan's "No More Than Cattle", among hundreds of thousands of Africans under German or British colonialism forced to participate as porters or combatants. While the full list of over two dozen selections cannot be covered in a brief review, a few examples reveal its range of concerns, biographies, and approaches. 

Clode's "The Coward's War" takes up a topic which remains controversial today. "If an army is the reflection of the society for which it was created, Thomas Highgate was the first crack in its mirror." Executed for desertion in 1914, he was one of over three hundred Commonwealth soldiers who met that fate, in a time when very little was understood about stress, shell-shock, and fragility under fire. Clode's dramatic shading (here as in his other inclusion, "The Black Chair" about the Welsh bardic poet Hedd Wyn) deepens the ambiguity of this tribute. It portrays uncertainty. when those leaders ordered to force troops into battle no matter their condition were also victims of this era's ignorance. Prejudice persists. Clode reports how Highgate's hometown in 1999 refused to let his name be added to that feature of many towns, schools, and village squares among the Allies, its local war memorial.

"Il Gatto" saddened me. It follows an intrepid cat who crosses Italian to Austrian lines during the bitter war in the Alps. At one point, Stuart Richards places the feline facing the frozen front, its head above the icy trench, alongside a long line of helmeted soldiers, dug in with rifles drawn for assault.

Sean Michael Wilson's "Live and Let Live" cheered me. It narrates the stand-offs arranged tacitly on the front, so neither German nor Allied troops would fire on each other, as long as no mortal threat was raised. This sensible compromise allowed many soldiers to survive, and affirms common sense.

Yet, that solution could never be published during the war. The plight of journalists, whom the British would shoot as spies, meant that front-line, honest reporting would not emerge for those on the home front. "Truth Be Told" in Pippa Hennessy's unsparing words and Danos Philopoulos' scorching illustrations claw at the page. These convey the quest of one bold correspondent who fought to live.

Survival, in Dan Hill's take on solidarity, "Where Others Follow", educates readers. It explains how sheep have evolved to protect their pacifism. Watch-sheep emerge to guard the flock. Although a single herd rallies against predators, the group recognizes individuals and remembers each one's presence, If in a flock as with troops a single member is subsumed into a collective, an evolving balance endures which meets individual needs and demands of the group. It's a clever lesson, or fable.

But crammed together, endurance drags many down, crushed by the pressures of killing. A U-Boat commander succumbs. After a series of Allied sinkings, he lets his submarine be rammed by a British destroyer. Similarly, elite aces in planes give in after one too many dogfight victories, once the cost to their psyche has been tallied. Tanks explode and bodies shatter across wastelands. Many German versions of testimonies wallow in mud and grime. Dark pages overwhelm the light in  acrid, gloomy evocations of bomb craters and gray hell. "Poppies" depicts the artist Otto Dix, whose engravings acidly commemorate the searing visions he could not escape, as deftly rendered by Kate Houghton.

After such tales sink in, the reader reflects on the legacy left for us a hundred years later. Growing up, I heard very few scattered memories from WWI veterans, rambling anecdotes passed down from two old men. Fewer seem to understand today (with few films let alone novels or testimonies taught in schools today) this fatal march to a war that wiped out, disproportionately, about ten million young men in uniform, along with seven million civilians who never signed up or resigned themselves to fight for empires. The anthologists rouse readers to resist seductive, sinister calls for yet more war.

While a few entries dithered about despite their brevity, dissipating their force by narratives revealing gaps or leaps in time or space, most succeed very well at teaching this persistent lesson of peace. "Perhaps the decision to go to war should never be decided by men in wood paneled offices of state, but by a committee of mothers on both sides, advised by those who have seen war and what it does to soft human bodies, to the fragile mind and very soul." So Joe Gordon concludes this collection with his "Memorial to the Mothers". He reflects on a Royal Scots gravestone he passes often; the father buried beneath died on a 1918 battlefield. There, his son rests too, suffering the same fate in 1940. Gordon wonders about the unheralded mothers left to grieve. He speculates on these women's sorrow and anger and loss, as our inheritance during every war erupting after WWI. "And then perhaps we might finally learn to stop, for what mother really, truly believes anything was worth her bonny boy?"
(Amazon 9-15-14; Pop Matters 8-25-14; Author's website)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Joshua Dubler's "Down in the Chapel": Book Review

While academic articles have scrutinized the range of religious observance behind bars, and while popular culture capitalizing on this milieu treats these activities with passing or prurient interest, few in-depth treatments aimed at a wider audience have appeared. Adapting his Princeton dissertation, a professor of religion at the University of Rochester, Joshua Dubler, guides readers through a prison week in early 2006. He uses a week's chronology to intersperse summaries from ethnography and sociology on prison religion, mingling these with a year of sacred and profane discussions among those who gravitate towards one prison chapel, which can be a bleak or comforting "cellular edifice". Combining scholarly distance with first-hand reports as a participant-observer, he introduces us to 15 chapel workers chosen from a general population of 3,500, their five chaplains, and a pair of officers enlisted to keep order in this quiet corner of Pennsylvania's Graterford State Correctional Institution.

The inmates reflect the racial and ethnic demographics of this prison, thirty-odd miles northwest of Philadelphia. About a quarter of those locked up there identify as Muslim, often drawn from the same South Philly neighborhoods which claim the allegiance of inmates at Graterford, about two-thirds of whom are African-American. Trusting those who they knew outside before they all wound up on the inside, many stick together to attend a particular service among the Islamic options. Three include Warith Deen as the successor to the disbanded Nation of Islam, the Nation of Islam itself as revived under Louis Farrakhan, or an enduring manifestation of earlier Islam in black America, the Moorish Science Temple. Dubler explores this trio; he elaborates how tensions in this prison had once worsened between factions of black Muslim observance. These sparked resentment among staff and politicians who suppressed what they perceived as subversion in a more permissive atmosphere. In a 1995 crackdown on drugs and smuggling, tough-on-crime authorities gained control over Graterford.

Dubler "as a Jew and a pluralist" sides with these expressions of black identity. As a counter to the "expansionist universalism" of Sunni Muslims, fervent Catholics, or fundamentalist Protestants, he admits his soft spot for a "living genealogy of black religion". This heritage, however, seems increasingly an urban African-American legacy within a globalizing community, open to religious competition. Reverend Keita is a Bible-based Protestant from Sierra Leone; the prison imam is from Nigeria. This pair ministering to Philly-loyal inmates stands out, as immigrants into black America.

Today, many African-American Muslims opt for an increasingly appealing take on fundamentalism, imported from the Salafi sect in Saudi Arabia. The selection of that imam from Africa may reflect a wish among supervisors to inculcate a more traditional, less politically charged, style of supervision through conducting services and monitoring inmate activity. Whatever the denomination, Dubler reveals the tensions chaplains share. They soon are "burned" by the appeals and scams of inmates conniving to use their phones or computers (rare instances of such devices accessible at Graterford, at least legally), so chaplains can "burn out", caught between the strategies of staff who use chaplains for surveillance and the scams of inmates who seek to manipulate those assigned to care for them.

Nevertheless, a "palliative" quality of religion, in one common explanation for its ubiquity (which Dubler diminishes as he does any neat formula to shrink down human experience to theory), sedates. At least according to the conventional wisdom, which justifies a widespread practice of prisoner faith. As the liberal Lutheran, Reverend Baumgartner (some names are changed in this narrative), avers, the jaded staff regards chaplains as "as affable opiate peddlers", in Dubler's memorable phrase.

This book peppers such phrases into its style. Prisoner Teddy and Officer Watkins debate the truth of the Bible, as Dubler judges them "nothing if not readers of outrageous confidence". He then segues into a rundown of the Second Great Awakening nearly two hundred years ago. As a Muslim, Sayyid may deny evolution and assert God's control, but "his claims to lockjaw epistemological modesty are belied by his exuberance". A Jewish inmate, the rabbi's clerk, enters: "Fastidious in his appearance, with pressed browns, sculpted hair, shadowless cheeks, and, in summer, the uniformly bronze hue of an intentional tan, Brian carries himself with the harried air of a corporate professional." Neshawn rises during a Nation of Islam gathering to talk about an incident "on the block"; his "appetite for unpolished provocation" hints to Dubler of "a mind run amok". Such vivid details humanize those Dubler introduces, and they enliven the gist of a book which can wander off into professorial prose.

This tone, drifting between character studies and theoretical rumination (nearly thirty pages of dense footnotes attest to the origins of this project), creates frequent shifts. Dubler as an Ivy League-trained professor incorporates ten theses, in self-aware, suggestive language, which highlight his attempts at applying theory to the situations he studies. This can disconcert, for the range of this study is vast and despite lots of documentation, he can assume his reader is as smart as he is as to certain allusions or scholars. However, he alters this density by varying narrative voices to highlight his own predicament, listening to those on the inside, but always knowing he possesses the freedom denied his informants and confidants. He stays cautious of the staff and cameras watching his moves.

He reports in long conversations the tensions of the body and the spirit, the restless minds and the stifled desires. These he dramatizes, from inmates, chaplains, and guards. (I wondered how often he took notes, took liberties with dialogue, and/or if he transcribed tapes but I cannot ascertain--except for one mention of him transcribing a brief sermon--the precise methods by which he recalls so much, given this hefty expansion of his dissertation.) He blends academic discussions with hip-hop lyrics, trash talk, debates, and his hyper-aware sensibility. After all, he does not fit into this regimentation.

Raised well-off in Manhattan, he reveals how he descends from "agnostic observant Jews" who don't believe in God anymore but who take comfort in belonging to a set of values, a community, and a family. This key insight emerges late on, for it's not until Friday of the dramatized week when we hear it, by way of Dubler at Shabbat service. He then opens up, badgered by Brian, to account for his own Jewish identity, and the merits of his dissertation. How can this one prison stand for millions incarcerated? How can a single study account for unprecedented religious variety among inmates?

Dubler accepts the narrow limits of his project on practical grounds, but he rejects expansion of his observations to create a heady, sweeping statement about religious life in all American prisons. He admits its small scope. He strives to follow academic convention in methodology. Yet, he rejects rigidity as to theory. Earlier, he dismisses both the "bad man" trope where those incarcerated use religion as part of a con and the "poor man" stance where those convicted turn to religion as solace: humbled, beaten down, or too weak to react in other than a pitiful submission to life's hardships.

Investigating the marked "do-or-die certitude" habitually if not totally asserted by most of the six Muslims, four Protestants, two Catholics, as well as the one atheist who works in the chapel, Dubler notes the necessity for prisoners to adapt such a stubborn line of defense for survival. It's rare to hear irony when they proclaim their beliefs, for Graterford like any prison is a place "where men tend to bind themselves to the masts of their convictions and tenaciously hold on to those revolutionary moments in time when they first become what they continue to resolutely become". This subtle phrasing typifies Dubler's preference for a flexible expression of religion, rooted in his preference for postmodern lack of resolution and his professed tendency to act out, rather than mull over, ideas. He suspects those locked into a warped, defensive pose, who cannot flex or bend to save themselves.

Among his Jewish fellows, Dubler lets down his academic guard. He has opposed the liberal Protestant position which courts have adopted. This criterion aligns the sincerity of what is professed "interiorly" with what is indicative of truth through an exterior manifestation. This limits the expression of a sanctioned faith to a denomination demanding a material representation of belief. Dubler resists any judgement which promotes religion by a particular legal or academic label. He responds to Brian's challenge: "As I see it, rather than in the discreetly mapped forest, it is in the territorial mess of trees and shrubs, undergrowth and earth, where the stuff of religion takes place."

In such a thicket, he orients himself, given a wavering reaction towards his ancestral Judaism. Rejecting facile scholarly definitions, Dubler affirms that religion is a convivial activity, but it need not be profession of a creed or a ritual enacted as in scripture. It can be what is joyfully, intuitively shared. He equates religion with eating and drinking at a meal "with one's friends, with one's people".

Among others, too, he seeks to understand varieties of religious experience. At a Spanish-language revival service, he wonders if the preacher's fulminations against "the Jews" are meant symbolically, practically, or personally. He sits gingerly on the frozen ground as part of a Native American circle. He follows Father Gorski to the death row block. He talks with a Catholic inmate applying Franciscan principles of restorative justice to ease relations with the family of his victim. Dubler attends what he confesses to be a dispiriting Mass on a dreary Saturday night. The surge of emotional relief he feels, he and the priest confide when they leave prison confines for the parking lot, testifies to the pressures built up within the forbidding place they both choose to work at, but from which they both can walk away each night. This freedom divides those who care for these inmates from those inmates. Still, as the book nears its conclusion and the year reaches its end, Dubler lets readers glimpse his growing sadness at departure. He assures those he has spoken to he will treat them fairly.

Within Graterford, neither jailhouse terrorists radicalized by Islam nor crazed prophets railing at the their carceral confines materialize. Dubler concedes long-term prisoners learn to endure as ascetics rather than revolutionaries during harsh sentences. "Not system shatterers, today's religious prisoners are, in their own quiet and righteous way--much like the majority of us--system sustainers." Demonstrating devotion to a system, even in its "messy and putatively noncoercive assemblage of music, altar patter, and Bible readings", the "anticlerical, antiliturgical" Protestant Sunday service led by Reverend Baumgartner rouses gratitude at God's call. Joy sustains its appeal into the rest of the congregants' week. Certainly, Dubler enjoys it much more than the Catholic Mass the previous night.

This book educates with references to Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and Feuerbach, along with casual nods to The Wire, Dungeons and Dragons, and pro football. Dubler diligently navigates between his privileged status as an academic and his trusted role as an interviewer in an unpredictable environment. He may never shake off his own protective garb, that scholarly, liberal, idealistic mindset which drives him to spend a year at Graterford for his doctoral fieldwork, but he lets down his guard long enough to learn lessons from a formidable cadre of teachers and mentors on the inside.
(Edited for Amazon US 8-1-14; PopMatters 8-11-14. See also Karl Woolf at NYJB, same day.)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Lewis Buzbee's "Blackboard": Book Review

A product of the golden age when California's postwar public schools were ranked first in the nation, now a writer of children's books, Lewis Buzbee returns to where he started, nearly a half-century ago. From kindergarten, he moves through his elementary, junior high and high schools, before summing up his stint at three institutions of higher learning, and then his career teaching writing to extension students. Throughout, he briefly explains how education has developed, and he blends light analysis with his own quest as a student.

In the Santa Clara, pre-Silicon, Valley, he began in 1962 at Bagby Elementary, one of many sprawling, open-aired, low-slung, baby-boom, suburban schools, this one built a year before he was born. He finds much the same expanse today, and he juxtaposes his younger self as he stands in the same classrooms. The poet and creative writing instructor that he is now surfaces, as in this passage: "Mrs. Babb would be grading papers at her desk, and I would be standing just outside the classroom door, thwocking the erasers together, teacher and student working in concert somehow, me watching the words and numbers and ideas from the previous week as they drifted across the playground." While whiteboards and dry-erase markers replace the chalk-dusted, eraser-powdered, durable black or green boards, those lasted two decades, he tells us, while today's stolid computers may be turned over every two or three years now.

He shows how kindergarten, as a garden to cultivate the minds and bodies of children, grew from German reformer Friedrich Froebel in 1837; the roots of "school" burrow back to the ancient Greeks, who used the word for learning together as derived from the one for "leisure time", denoting what for millions of children elsewhere in the world may still be an unachievable dream, the freedom to learn.

This opportunity, when Mrs. Babb called upon young Lewis to show his work at the black or white board, comes with struggle. "School can, in its best form, allow us to move beyond our terror."  Buzbee relates his own fear of "showing" math problems, and he reminds us how school, with supportive teachers (one can never fully account for the same patience in one's classmates), can overcome our uncertainties. He reveals how not only at Ida Price Middle School but in his bass guitar lessons on the side, being a successful learner demands one take risks. He mastered skills by memorizing times tables, musical scales, or French conjugations. These mental exercises, as with a guitarist figuring out riffs, cut grooves into the mind by repetition. These years of drill and discipline, as he recounts from lessons in junior high and at Branham High in San Jose, turned him away from a working-class household, where he struggled with doubt, into a confident, college-bound student.

Part Two tells of his shift from orientation to matriculation. While the transformation as a young adult in the mid-1970s was less swift than the two years of junior high, where he entered liking Bobby Sherman's sappy "Honey" and left humming the Beatles' menacing "Helter Skelter", Buzbee kept testing himself. After a year at the University of California, Santa Barbara, he returned to the Bay Area to be near a girlfriend while attending the local junior college. He praises evenly the highlights of both places, followed by the completion of his degree as an English major at nearby Santa Clara.

After that, he rejected a career as a high school English teacher for one as a writer. Successful enough to live in San Francisco, he returned to the classroom to teach creative writing, first at Berkeley and then the University of San Francisco in extension programs. He adds his own continuing education as a student, this time learning how to draw. Meanwhile, he compares the progression of his daughter, Maddy, with his earlier journey through California's public schools. They have changed, certainly.

Educated at a Montessori kindergarten, a French immersion grade school, and a Friends junior high, Maddy represents a generation raised by parents unwilling to commit their children to decaying city schools even as they wish they could improve. As my wife and I are the product of Californian public schools in that golden age (and former teachers in the Los Angeles schools ourselves in a far more tarnished era full of cutbacks, unrest, population growth, and declining standards among both faculty and students), we had sought alternatives, however rickety or utopian, for our children, educated within our city's similarly declining system. So, I understand Buzbee's dilemma. He may sidle past certain problems; he tries to solve others. He concludes with seven strong recommendations.

First, he would halve K-12 class sizes. Doubling salaries, while tripling those in junior high, he would have new teachers mentored, giving sabbaticals every fifth year. He'd happily, showing his NoCal leanings, tax away to pay for this, as well as classrooms reliably hot in winter and cool in summer, stocked with supplies, and surrounded by open space. (One casualty of urban overcrowding on many Californian campuses is the loss of fields and P.E. for overstuffed two-story, rather than open-plan, classroom structures resembling motels, by the by. He does admit that desks have increased in size, to account for the spike in childhood obesity.) Finally, Buzbee would enable daily time to stare out the window. He'd also abolish bake sales to raise funds for strapped schools.

This ambitious plan, with a touch of Swift's "Modest Proposal". pivots around the simple fact that schools are not factories, and mechanization is not the answer to what human enterprise can do. As a father of a private high school student, Buzbee assures us he will be happy to pay higher taxes so that the rest of the public school youngsters in California (and the nation) can enjoy the golden age of education which he, myself, and millions once did. If only my sons, his daughter, and millions of our neighbors' children (and adults) could do so now. (Author's website; PopMatters 8-5-14/ Amazon US)

Friday, September 5, 2014

George Saunders' "The Braindead Megaphone: Essays": Review



In the title essay, the Megaphone Guy struts in, sets up his amplified bray, and his listeners find themselves unable to carry on their conversations, forced as they are to adopt his expressions, giving way to his domination, without realizing his sway. More relevant than ever ten years on, in an age of click bait and Buzzfeed and Facebook “likes” pestering us alongside pop-ups and pundits.

Covering excess in Dubai, Saunders reflects amidst the predictable if dazzling glittery glitz how universal the Other remains, appealing by common human dignity and compassion to connect people no matter who or where. Under the snark, his essays at their best sustain the impact of his stories, where empathy mingles somehow with satire, and pop psychology send-ups deepen the poignant attempts of put-upon everyday people, corrupted by systems and co-opted by corporations, to maintain dignity against all capitalist odds. The profit motive reigns in Dubai; Saunders accepts in reporting for GQ his complicity, but he wonders what else he, gawking at Third World workers happy to toil in the desert, should or can do.

As for the media he represents, on the border near Laredo, he gently mocks his Minutemen companions, as an East Coast journalist. Accused of not being a properly neutral reporter, Saunders fires back: “We’re being neutral.” “By not making fun of you.” (152) While insistent on his liberal bona fides, Saunders here allows himself to hear out the often caricatured other side of the issue, and the border. He never gives in, but following his coverage, he begins to become more patient, and we share the tolerance for insights transcending sound bites or partisan treatment of hot-button issues

Beneath a smart-ass tone, Saunders keeps aware of the need for honesty. He wonders if we may be wired by one of two nodes neutrally. Some protect what they have, and crouch and hunker down to guard it. Others pop up, eager to share, open to the new. Perhaps, he reflects, our politics thus emerge.

This continues into an excellent introduction to Huck Finn. “Tom likes kings, codified nobility, unquestioned privilege. Huck likes people, fair play, spreading the truck around. Whereas Tom knows, Huck wonders. Whereas Huck hopes, Tom presumes. Whereas Huck cares, Tom denies.” (203) Out of this conflict, Saunders maps the war within the American (and World) Psyche, ever contending. Apropos, he finds in Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme congenial fellow travelers.

What links these writers is a refusal to give into the narrative's comforts, and to allow uneasiness. As Saunders finds investigating a report of a boy meditating for seven years: “A human being is someone who, having lived awhile, becomes terrified and, having become terrified, deeply craves an end to the fear.” Visiting a Nepalese Buddhist shrine, wary of miracles, he still muses: “all of this began when one man walked into the woods, sat down, and tried to end his fear by doing something purely internal: working on his mind.” (216). Saunders diagnoses this as a possible remedy for our “ambient fear” of knowing that when we love, we realize “there must someday come a parting.”

While a few essays fall flat, feeling like sketches for stories better dramatized than satirized, and while his strength remains in fictionalizations of the predicaments he doodles in the lesser entries, overall this 2007 collection plays to the quirky elements that make his inventive tales so successful. (7-25-14 to Amazon US)

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Michael Hemmingson's "William T. Vollmann: A Critical Study and Seven Interviews": Review


In part I: Freedom, Redemption, and Prostitution, Hemmingson discusses dominant themes: the individual seeking to survive or resist within the system. Chapter One covers in more than detail than usual in this volume the debut novel that portrays this as a circle, a spiral, a trap repeated over and over in You Bright and Risen Angels. Then, it's a survey of freedom sought in Rainbow Stories, Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epigrams, if far too brief a glance at the massive WWII Soviet-Nazi epic Europe Central.
 
Seven Dreams: A Book of North American Landscapes in its first four installments to date in this monograph remain skimmed rather than dissected. A few pages per novel leave one with an insufficient appreciation of what each chronicle comprises, and their plots. (
I've recently reviewed each: The Ice-Shirt; Fathers and CrowsArgall; The Rifles.) However, Hemmingson explains earlier the general approach Vollmann prefers for most of his oeuvre. He clarified in a 2006 Poets & Writers Magazine interview how the "different genres are like different paint brushes you might pick up, which create different effects"; the works, Hemmingson introduces, combine "fiction, memoir, erotica, journalism, social critique, ethnography, history, and speculative fiction." (7) Hemmingson alludes to the academic apparatus (and, I add, insights informing many of his books via experts) added to the Dreams series (and other books) as Vollmann's typical method, which exposes the difficulty of interpreting claims and judging motives.

Whores for Gloria, Butterfly Stories, and The Royal Family earn attention for their milieux in Asia and in San Francisco, two areas Vollmann has explored as a journalist and participant-observer. In this loose trilogy he also incorporates himself as a character, as well as a chronicler of low-life redemption. Hemmingson makes this seamy material inviting, noting its compassion and nuance.
 

An enormous project on the ethics of violence and the taking of life, Rising Up & Rising Down earns a brisk survey, more oriented to the condensed version given the original's scarcity to most readers. Hemmingson critiques the scattershot nature of Vollmann's An Afghanistan Picture Show and appears to favor the diverse collage of fact and fiction that comprises a similarly conceived The Atlas. Likewise, he prefers Poor People to the more diffuse and self-absorbed literary musings of Riding Toward Everywhere. As for Imperial, its scope and heft again dwarf the few pages allotted to it here. 

As Hemmingson tallies Vollmann's labels, they prove many: "a postmodernist, metafictionist, contemporary and historical novelist, pornographer, journalist, cultural/social critic, travel writer, and memoirist." (67) One senses this critic and his subject share an affinity for the adventure of a war correspondent, and a journalist willing to plunge into the raw, wounded, and seamier sides of life. Despite a lack of proofreading and a brevity at odds with Vollmann's vast range, this as the author intends represents by default "the starting point for all Vollmann studies." Its compact size may contrast with (as even a sympathetic critic such as Hemmingson confronts) Vollmann's refusal to accept editing, but the summations of texts and the interviews compiled make this a handy reference. 

Part II offers Seven Conversations, many drawn from the Net, but also expanded or published in full. In full form, you can read 1991's "Moth to the Flame," with Larry McCaffery. Then, shorter takes enter as The Write Stuff, a 1994 ALT-X Interview, and
"William Vollmann Shares Vision" with Michelle Goldberg, 2000. Another 2001 interview with McCaffery follows as "Pattern Recognitions."

"Drinks With Tony" is a 2005 interview with Tony Dushane at Bookslut. "The Subversive Dialogues" with Kate Braverman follows from 2006. Finally, "A Day At William T. Vollmann’s Studio" is A Quarterly Conversation 2007 interview with Terri Saul on his series of transformed book objects.

The book concludes with a bibliography up to around 2008. Added is a list of “CoTangent Press Book Arts” about the limited-edition book objects; McCaffery and Hemmingson included illustrations from these and context in their own useful 2004 Vollmann reader Expelled from Eden.
(Amazon US 2-21-14)

-------------------------------
Paris Review #163 interview with Madison Smartt Bell, Fall 2000.

Free Williamsburg interview with Alexander Laurence, May 2001.
 

YouTube shows Larry McCaffery discussing Vollmann at MLA 2011.
 

Vollmann Club collects links, some dead, from its long-dormant book discussion.
 

Holdings of the Vollmann Archive at Ohio State University.
 

P.S. These URLs (excepting my own embedded italicized reviews as linked), expanded the ToC by Nathan R. Gaddis as his helpful 2013 Goodreads post.
--------------------------------
Mostly via the working links on Vollmann at Wikipedia, I append a few more interviews and reviews:
 
Bell again in NY Times Magazine on Vollmann, 2004 profile.  

James Gibbons on Expelled and Europe and much more in Bookforum, 2005.

Ben Bush in the 2006 Poets & Writers Magazine interview cited above. 

John Cotter on Poor People ca. 2007 at Open Letters Monthly.

Jeff Bursey on Expelled and Poor 2008, Electronic Book Review.

Vollmann on the ethics of photography, "Seeing Eye to Eye," Bookforum, 2009. 

Steven Ross at The Brooklyn Rail after the publication of Imperial, 2010.  

Tom Bissell at The New Republic after the publication of Last Stories, 2014. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

"Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader": Review


This 2004 anthology, as introduced by critic Larry McCaffery, presents Vollmann's body of work as if a quirky parallel to a fan's in-depth retrospective on Bruce Springsteen. That is, it shows early and obscure work, unreleased compositions, as well as the hits. Michael Hemmingson's preface shows--as with The Boss--how Vollmann inspired his contemporaries to create and to follow his example, if more on the fringes of critical acclaim to date compared to the #1 success of Springsteen. But, as Bruce was once but a cult figure, so may Vollmann still break through.

Part 1 looks at his background and influences. "The Land of Counterpane" reveals a boyhood fear of "wrinkles" that reminds us of the terror as well as release within our imaginary encounters with tales at an early age. "The Butterfly Boy" finds a stand-in for the bullied young Bill; and "Hanover, New Hampshire, U.S.A. (1968)" charts the death of his sister which marked him while growing up. "Some Thoughts on Neglected Water Taps" respectfully surveys his Deep Springs College years. I think the "List of 'Contemporary' Books Most Admired by Vollmann (1990)" is well-chosen for a smart man nearing thirty, but the editors seem to understate that his father taught at Dartmouth, Rhode Island, and Indiana, and that as a straight-A student at Cornell and a dropout from Berkeley's doctoral program, Vollmann certainly benefited from exposure to "high" culture all his life. His early story excerpt "The Ghost of Magnetism" displays well his talents for the hallucinatory and vivid.

Part II plunges into death, war, and violence. "Three Meditations on Death" from the Paris catacombs, the San Francisco morgue, and the Serb-Croatian p-o-v prove harrowing. "Across the Divide" evenly listens to the Taliban and their opponents. "Regrets of a Schoolteacher" glimpses a Yakuza recruit's troubled career. "Zoya" from Europe Central presents a Soviet woman's hanging by the Nazis. From "The Grave of Lost Stories" peeps into Poe. Vollmann's review of Reporting Vietnam shows influences that marked him in his youth (although he seems a bit too young to have feared being called up for any draft over there). "Some Thoughts on the Value of Writing during Wartime" challenges writers to understand goodness and to seek truth honestly from opponents as well as supporters of state and rebel violence. But a snip from his massive Rising Up and Rising Down treatment of a "tentative ethics" of rationales for violence as "Moral Calculus" needed more context.

Part III dives into another controversial theme, that of love and sex, but mainly prostitutes, and a bit of pornography. The amount of material should satisfy casual readers wondering how and why Vollmann gravitates towards this domain. He tells of a seedy hotel, scuttled with cockroaches and smelling of a crack pipe, and you should be convinced that he knows this realm well. He repeats the familiar argument that in our economic reality, we all sell ourselves for another's gain or pleasure. He encourages as with war reporting that observers promote honesty and try to connect the Self with the Other, a theme that he returns to in the literary criticism that he contributes to through his life's work.

Part IV shows the backdrop as travel for these books. I found his collegiate letters about "the advantages of space" and "a bizarre proposition" jejune. More revealing was "The Conquest of Kianazor" as an early template for his fictional imagination. "Subzero's Debt" from The Rifles serves as a dramatic test of his own Arctic limits, and luckily less life-threatening, "The Water of Life" from Imperial charts his attempt to ride the New River through that polluted, parched, and odd valley.

Part V, on writing, literature, and culture champions his what one piece titles "Crabbed Cautions of a Bleeding-Hearted Un-Deleter" and potential Nobel Prize winner" and despite one's caution at such a claim, if you read Vollmann patiently and deeply, you too may be convinced that this isn't hyperbole. He returns to rally by "understanding without approving or hating. By empathizing." ("American Writing Today: Diagnosis of a Disease" 330)  His "Afterword to Danilo Kiš's 'A Tomb for Boris Davidovich' raises the "unending debate between revolutionaries and conservatives" by asking whether "unavoidable, essential existence" accounted for "beaten wives, perished workers and misled children" or "whether their tragedies, being the results of human agency, may be addressed through a massive change in social structures." (337)  He tackles ideology, and why we rush to a cause. "Maybe in politics as in sexuality, a purity of passion exists in the preconsummation state of half-blind surmises." (339) He reviews his own Argall in jaundiced fashion as he imitates critics of his prolixity and proliferation in "The Stench of Corpses." An appreciation of two influences, one prolix, one populist, enlivens "Melville's Magic Mountain" and "Steinbeck: Most American of Us All." 

Valuable appendices as a thorough and revealing Vollmann-and-more chronology by McCaffery and Vollman's "Seven Dreams: Description of Project" assist any researcher or reader of his vast oeuvre to date. Samples of his working style with collaborators and his CoTangent Press book objects show more examples of how Vollmann goes beyond writing, as an artist and documentarian, to try to, as he sums up in a postscript, remain moral. "I have no trade, make nothing but pretty things which fail against the seriousness of rice." He goes on, half-humbly, and perhaps half-self-consciously in a biblical or proverbial sense (I sense he wears many masks): "When they did me evil, I received it gracefully; when they were good to me, I returned my thanks." (479) While I could do without the photo of young Vollmann with his Beretta as this panders to a voyeuristic sensibility that "Rising" may have tempered, and while the blurbed emphasis on not-yet-published works adds up only to the section from Imperial and the then-about to be released Europe Central, it's for now the only way into so many of his many works. For this, thanks to this author and editors, too. (Amazon US 2-9-14)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Lus na gréinne, sútha talún, samraidh i tSwanton

Chuaigh Léna agus ár chara Broderick go an feirme sútha talún an Domhnach seo caite. Thúg sé an grianghraf seo in aice leis Swanton. Tá áit ag imeall ar feadh an Aigéin-Chiúin suas Naomh Crios.

Tá sé go minic an-ghaofar ann. Bíonn an samraidh anois, ach mbeadh sé seachto céim ansin. Dá bhrí sin, is féidir liom é go fháil i ngár ar feirm ann.

Má fhéachann tú ar an dheas, tú ábalta ag dul isteach an sabhal sean. Cheannaigh siad sútha talún agus caora órganachaí. Fásann siad ann.

Mar sin féin, is maith liom ag siúl timpeall taoibh lasmuigh an síopa fós. Nuair cuirim cuart ansin, análú mé go mór. Níl mé ag dul ag cois fharraige níos mó.

D'ith muidsa píog na "ollalaberries" an óiche sin ar chéile. Fásann siad ar an cois na Califoirnea Lárnach ina samraidh deireanach. Tá siad milseog speisealta gach uair a thagann againn anseo, gan amhras.

Sunflowers, strawberries, summer in Swanton.

Layne and our friend Broderick went to the strawberry farm this past Sunday. He took this photograph near Swanton. The place is along the Pacific Ocean above Santa Cruz.

It's often very windy there. It's summer now, but it may be seventy degrees there. Therefore, it's preferable to get out near the farm there.

If you look to the right, you're able to go inside an old barn. They sell strawberries and berry pies. They are grown there.

Nevertheless, I like to go walk around outside the shop, still. When I pay a visit there, I breathe deeply. I don't go to the coast much.

We ate ollalaberry pie that night together. They grow on the coast of Central California in early summer. They are a special dessert to remember each time that we come here, without a doubt.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

William T. Vollmann's "Last Stories and Other Stories": Book Review

The title may mislead. In his mid-fifties, after a five-year grant which afforded him a break from frenetic typing and prolific publishing, William T. Vollmann given his work ethic presumably intends to tell more tales. His books blur globetrotting journalism, ethics, violence, sex, travels among the down-and-out, history, cultural critique, and speculative fiction. Michael Hemmingson's 2009 monograph explains: "Vollmann's collections are not compilations of random short stories written over a certain period of time, as many collections seem to be. Each is compounded on a high concept, a grand metaphor; the volumes are cycles of related texts with recurring topics and motifs." (22) In these thirty-two sprawling stories, composed apparently during the past decade, ghosts hover, spirits tell tales, and memories linger, to settle down.

A journalist now "fat and old" returns to Sarajevo two decades after the war. His story, told obliquely, labels him only by his nationality, bound by the dictates of an internecine conflict which reduced neighbors to their territory or tribe. That war shot down any Romeos and Juliets who tried to escape the snipers, as the opening vignette dramatizes. Attracted to the crossfire the natives try to flee, the protagonist echoes Vollmann's experience as it opened his critique of justifications for violence, Rising Up and Rising Down (2003), as one of "Three Meditations on Death". This event led to his serious wounding and the death of two of his companions when their jeep was ambushed on the way to Sarajevo. Driven to investigate this, and to make a living off of documenting pain, Vollmann reflects on such collusion by a curious, compliant war correspondent: "The American felt that slight sickness which always visited him on such occasions; in part mere adrenaline, which was intrinsically nauseating, that higher form of fear in which his mind floated ice cold, and a measure of disgust at himself for having voluntarily increased his danger of death. Over the years, the incomprehensible estrangement between his destiny as a risk-taking free agent and the destinies of the people whose stories he sometimes lived on, which is simply to say the people who were unfree, and accordingly had terrible things done to them, would damage him. Being free, however, he would never become as damaged as many of them."

Some of Vollmann's characteristic tics emerge in this representative passage. As his critics contend, it might benefit from editing. Vollmann to past criticism has responded that he submits exactly what he needs to, and he refuses many excisions requested by editors or publishers. Therefore, his books tend towards heft. (See my reflections 25 November 2013 on Imperial.) Does this latest volume need it?

Six-hundred-and-fifty pages of themed stories shift from Sarajevo to Trieste for part two, and then part three in Bohemia. The fourth section leaves Trieste for 1860s Mexico. Fifth, Norway, and sixth, Tokyo follow. The seventh setting is unspecified while the eighth roams further, into Kauai, Paris, Buenos Aires, and the unknown. Here, the ninth portion concludes, as spirits intervene. The success of these restless, spectral stories depends on whether Vollmann can sustain in-depth soul-searching.

Part one explores Sarajevo of two doomed lovers, then that city as revisited earlier this current decade by the "American". The relatives of one of those killed in the jeep distrust the reporter, as if he was a "leader." They resent that he survived and not his Croatian-American friend, although the "patient fatalism" of the journalist proved not a shortcoming but a survival technique for one long bullied.

Three twined tales, for those familiar with Vollmann's themes, fictionalize his reflections on the 1994 death near Sarajevo of his classmate and later interpreter, Francis William Tomasic. What's added for this anthology is the discomfort of a boy once bullied turned middle-aged teller, who with his weary wife revisits, with mixed results for friendship or fondness, his former hosts. One story ends as these two Americans rest by the "Yellow Bastion, with heavy, fragrant clusters of white elderflowers bowing the branches down before them, and then, far down through the greenness, a hoard of those other white flowers called tombstones, rising delicately and distinctly from the grass". Vollmann prefers to underplay such prosier sections, so when these appear, they deepen their emotional impact.

The next story reaches novella length, with purpled, prosy passages filtered through a storyteller from an vague time perhaps two hundred years ago, about Jovo Cirtovich. This Sarajevan wine trader in Trieste seeks arcana of how the spheres move and the earth turns. It deepens Vollmann's immersion into this region's lore and landscape. But its meandering pace recalls digressions within Don Quixote, or or a heady, epic recital, its ending postponed for what feels a thousand nights, from Scheherazade.

This wandering attention persists over part two, with a few stories set around the Balkans. First, a boy who desecrates a statue of Our Lady of Flowers. Second, a shaggy-dog saga dramatizes a plinth of bronze statues which come to life, and then fictionalizes a surrealist painter, doubling as a slinky cat goddess. Then, a haunting episode introduces a trench ghost. Golem-like, this eerie figure animates post-WWI figurines to fight at grave sites, recalling tales of corpses restored and spirits unable to leave their places of death. Vollmann's invention strengthens over these loosely linked Trieste tales.

Back to Bohemia, part three connects stories about a vampire husband and wife, a widow, and a witch-finder. These take place in the 1630s, but retain as many tales in the first sections do a timeless sense. The folk nature of their narratives suspends them, however. A resigned tread dampens them, and they smell musty. As the Trench-Ghost tale's teller averred, "eternal stories do have a way of becoming tedious". But the last, with its showdown "come the dark of the moon" as "a squad of Holy Bohemian Dragons stood ready with garlicshooters, buckets of holy water and arquebuses loaded with silver bullets every third one of which had been blessed by the Pope", enlivens this morbidity.

From Trieste, part four opens with the Emperor Maximilian and his soon-maddened wife Carlota embarking for Mexico. Soon defeated, the Hapsburg claimant to the Second Mexican Empire spends his last night in prison imagining, in a set-piece displaying Vollmann's skill, an eerie Aztec sacrificial ritual anticipating the pretender's humbler demise before a firing squad in 1867 Querétaro. Later, a folklore student in today's Mexico falls in love with the incarnation, or deterioration, of his subject La Llorona, once La Malinche the mistress of Cortes: her lips "were cochineal-red, like the teeth of an Aztec prostitute". Finally, a diabolical fable, in the style of a notary from the Inquisition and the length of a garrulous episode from Cervantes, accounts for Veracruz's reputation for the plague. This moralizes on the fate of the Amazons, producing an allegory for colonialism's deadly sins. While scenes, set in grim prison and then in grim fantasy, benefit from detail, it seems a never-ending story.

Norwegian tales, of a spider-love, a graveyard, and a churchyard, mire themselves in the icy macabre. Perhaps the climate can be blamed. Set on an emigrant ship to Québec, part five's longer story fuels a hellish excursion, concluding in a gruesome, if at least warmer, cannery run by trolls. Two more stories, one in the first person, also end abruptly, although this leaves them lasting longer in memory.

For Vollmann's meandering prose, followed for long stretches, blurs these ghosts with doom-laden narratives. Committed to these, the dogged reader must capitulate, following the protagonists on their decaying pursuits. "The reason I had first approached her," one man who longs to turn a ghost rationalizes, "was to overcome the defining human error of despising death's carnality". This articulates Vollmann's motive, and reveals his determination to pursue hermetic themes. Embracing what repels most of us, part six's shift to Japan reaches its peak in loosely paired stories: the lover of the ghost of Rainy Mountain haunts the slopes in the feudal era; in modern times, a "camera-ghost" sucks its title character into its inner mechanisms, perhaps a setting no previous epic of ectoplasm has explored. More tales waft about the floating world of geishas, and over all them there rises a miasma.

"Defiance Too Late" comprises the total of part seven. This dour story, about Abraham's connivance and capitulation to God's command, cannot free itself from too-dutiful a recital of biblical cadences.


Part eight saunters first to Kauai for an love affair between another mortal man and an increasingly formless presence. The narrator confides for her his "capacity for affection--I nearly wrote infection"; this proves too true. At first, courtship appeals. "Swimming in her foamy white petticoats and her long green seaweed hair, she sang me the same melody she'd sung Ulysses", but the fun fades. That siren song "made little impression on me; I'd heard it all before." Vollmann lets the bracing impact of her humid, tropical, and watery allure or disgust dissipate. "Wringing out her sea-black skirt afterward, on her tiny lava-islet decorated with skulls, she offered me eternal life beneath the water; unfortunately, I was already diseased by that curse." This jaded attitude does not keep pages turning as fast as most authors may desire. As this narrator saunters off mid-tale to pursue a Greek corpse in Paris, before his return to Hawai'i, the novelty of an extended pursuit of a siren fades into narrative lassitude. A gruesome Poe-type tale of corpse robbers and flesh-eaters turns humdrum.  A fable emanating from Toronto incorporates a time-altering view from a telescope perched high on its immense sky tower promisingly, as it allows the narrator to see past and present, but it peters out. 

"The Grave House"  refreshingly, conveys spiritedly not a haunted but a haunting house. Very brief and witty, it evokes by its inversions a spooky series such as Night Gallery or The Twilight Zone.

This section concludes with "When We Were Seventeen" which at over fifty sections nears another novella. Dying of cancer, a middle-aged man rummages through his desk to conjure up, through a witch's magic potion, not only the letters from a long-ago failed romance in his teens, but the woman herself, after she has died, also from cancer. This uneasy affair between a revenant and his past object of affection, who keeps humiliating the clumsy swain who in middle age repeats the failures of his teenaged dating gaffes, enlivens this epistolary encounter. But again, energy fades, over such length. 

Part nine by comparison moves this creaky compendium briskly towards a conclusion. In its entirety, here is the first entry, "The Answer": "I asked the grave why I must die, and it did not answer. I asked who or what death was, and it kept silent. I asked where the dead I loved had gone, and its earthen lips did not open. I begged for just one reply, to anything, and then its grassy lips began to smile. Moistening itself with its many-wormed tongue, it opened. Too late I realized the answer."

Returning to the site of one of the tales in part six, Kamakura, "Goodbye" recalls earlier entries of watery seduction, subterranean skeleton-lovers, and ghoulish embraces. Then, these stories fade away, with their protagonists. They recall H.P. Lovecraft, by conjuring sinister, sinuous elongations.

In the typically diligent endnotes explaining where fact (such as Jovo or Maximiliano, or feline-obsessed one-time Trieste resident, surrealist painter Leonor Fini, whose works decorate the dust jacket) departs from fiction, Vollmann lets his sly hand show. He claims that he "cut a few pages, out of compassion" for his agent and editor. "No doubt Last Stories will make us all rich, at least in those 'hell banknotes' at certain ethnic Chinese funerals in Southeast Asia." Out of paper, Vollmann constructs his own tiger, words to howl at death. (PopMatters 7/3/14; to Amazon US 7-18-14)